In dozens of petitions filed in New York courthouses, public defenders argue that a Supreme Court ruling last month that dramatically expanded gun rights left the government without a case against their clients. .
The court struck down a New York law on the public carrying of handguns, and Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in his ruling that the Second Amendment guarantees a general right to publicly carry handguns. Advocates say that renders New York laws that criminalize gun ownership — and resulting charges against their clients — unconstitutional.
Their arguments mark the opening salvo in what will likely be a protracted legal campaign to use the Supreme Court’s decision to benefit those charged with carrying guns in New York.
Experts say the arguments should not be dismissed out of hand.
“From a legal perspective, based on an analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision, these motions have great merit,” said Steve Zeidman, a law professor at the City University of New York School of Law. and director of its criminal defense clinic.
“The Supreme Court case was certainly a game-changer,” he added. “The question is what is its application to day-to-day arrest, prosecution and adjudication in New York and New York State. And, frankly, across the country.
But so far the judges have not been swayed. In the Bronx, a judge, Ralph Fabrizio, noted that a defendant charged with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon failed to demonstrate or even assert that he applied for a license to carry a Smith and Wesson semi- automatic 9mm loaded.
The Supreme Court, Justice Fabrizio wrote, “did not magically decriminalize the acts of individuals who chose to violate state law by arming themselves and carrying and concealing all the firearms they they wanted to cover up, when and where they wanted to, without bothering to apply for a license.”
Other judges were more concise. Margaret Clancy, also of the Bronx, wrote in a one-page decision on a similar query, “This is absolutely incorrect.”
These cases can be appealed – and at least some probably will be.
Numerous challenges were filed before New York passed a new law this month restricting the public carrying of firearms. Most elements of the measure go into effect in September, and Zeidman said motions challenging it in state criminal court “would be the ones to watch.”
The flurry of petitions, first reported by the city, speaks to how the court’s decision has changed the playing field on gun laws in even the most liberal cities.
The Legal Aid Society would not say how many motions citing the Supreme Court decision it has filed. But the organization’s chief criminal defense practice attorney, Tina Luongo, said in a statement: “As we always have, we will advance all valid and available legal arguments in defense of our customers and will continue to urge decision makers to focus on real solutions. to armed violence, which lie outside the criminal justice system.
Public defender organizations are primarily driven by client interests. This sometimes pushes them to make unexpected alliances, as with gun rights organizations in the Supreme Court case. Forty years ago, they teamed up with the Police Benevolent Association of New York City to successfully fight a state law that would have removed some of the protections enjoyed by grand jury witnesses.
Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group, said he supports the goal of the defenders’ motions.
“Violent criminals should be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “But owning a gun, carrying a gun in public, is not a crime. And New York has violated the right of New Yorkers to carry firearms in public for decades. »
Racial equity is a key reason advocates have backed two upstate residents’ successful challenge to the century-old gun law, which they say was applied too often in a manner discriminatory. The law had required those who wished to bear arms in public in New York to show a particularly pressing need. Judge Thomas wrote in the decision that the law offered too much discretion to local authorities and generally trampled on the Second Amendment.
In a brief filed with the court ahead of its ruling, city advocate groups including Black Legal Aid Lawyers, Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Defender Service said they support the annulment of the law. They argued that “New York enacted its gun licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities. This remains the effect of its enforcement by police and prosecutors today.
But some prosecutors and elected officials, while supportive of arguments about fairness in enforcement, say the court’s decision left the state with the right to enforce reasonable gun regulations.
“More guns on our streets lead to more violence,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement. “New York’s strict gun regulations and strict licensing regime have been instrumental in keeping us safe, and it’s imperative that we follow those laws.”
A spokesman for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez called the court’s decision a “catastrophe” but said the office did not believe it would affect those charged with unlawful possession of weapons who have not never applied for a license or were denied a license.
“We will continue to take all necessary steps to protect Brooklyn residents from illegal firearms,” he said.
And Zellnor Myrie, a state senator who represents Brooklyn’s mid and south wards, said data should be kept on how gun regulations are enforced to account for racial disparities.
But, he said, the state still needs to protect residents from a flood of firearms, especially those brandished without a license.
“The public safety imperative to keep guns off our streets is strong,” he said. “And I hope the courts will continue to look at it the same way.”