A bill that would decriminalize some weapons charges in the District of Columbia will likely pass when the D.C. Council votes on it in early December, according to the legislation’s sponsor.
At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson (D) said he is not aware of any opposition among councilmembers to the Administrative Disposition for Weapons Offenses Amendment Act of 2012.
According to him, the measure would give prosecutors the discretion of using an administrative disposition for persons found with unregistered firearms and ammunition or with a single “cop-killer” bullet – so-called because it pierces body armor – as long as they are not also in possession of a weapon.
“If this legislation passes, and I believe it will, there is no difference in terms of police enforcement,” Mendelson said. “All it does is to convert the charge from a misdemeanor penalty to an administrative penalty. A misdemeanor penalty always carries jail time; an administrative penalty is just a fine.”
The legislation arose out of situations where non-residents would travel to D.C. with weapons and ammunition that were registered in their home state but not in the District, and find themselves with a criminal charge.
“I think we need to have an alternative to a criminal penalty for people who are arrested with absolutely no indication of criminal intent,” said Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary.
“The goal of gun control in the District is to separate the criminal from the law-abiding.”
With out-of-towners, the assumption was that they were likely not to know the gun laws, the lawmaker added.
Groups such as the District of Columbia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued, however, that the law would be confusing and unfair if it were not applied to D.C. residents as well—which is now the case. It also advanced the idea of allowing lower-income arrestees the option of performing community service in lieu of paying a fine to ensure equal protection of the law for the indigent.
“DCACDL urges the Council to amend Bill 19-888 to ensure a uniform and even-handed application of the law,” said group member Patrice Sulton in testimony prepared for delivery at a council committee hearing on the topic.
Otherwise, Sulton praised the measure as “a novel approach to a familiar problem” that “tends to promote justice and fairness.”
The city’s Office of the Attorney General was not as laudatory, however. Testifying at a hearing on the measure in September, Andrew Fois, deputy attorney general and head of the agency’s public safety division said the bill was a “solution in search of a problem” that was already addressed by existing law.
Fois also said the bill sends the wrong message about the seriousness of D.C.’s commitment to enforcing its gun laws, and that “post-and-forfeit” procedures are not appropriate for firearms-related charges.
Administrative dispositions “are not intended, nor appropriate, for firearms-related offenses committed by either non-residents or residents,” Fois testified.
“We do not believe the availability of this kind of disposition adequately reflects the seriousness of the nature of these charges,” he added. “Certainly, the line has to be drawn somewhere on what sorts of offenses are appropriate for this procedure and which are not.”
The Administrative Disposition Act is the latest in a set of attempts to reform the District’s gun laws after the Supreme Court struck down the jurisdiction’s almost-total ban on firearms in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller case. The bills try to streamline rules and reduce confusion even as it protects the District from lawsuits.
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