La. drug-gun statute latest to face review
Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?
Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.
The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.
The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending.
In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
The court has not yet announced when it will consider a third major gun law, the one that legal watchers believe is most likely to crumble under the amendment: the requirement that a person have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.
But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem. Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.
The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment. But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution.
The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.
“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar. “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.”
He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”
It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test.
That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it.
The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.
The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people.
The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs. The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.
The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.
But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted.
“The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.
Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight. He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too.
The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation. But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.
Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case.
Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.
The state has become an experiment.
“This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said. “ Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”