Middlesex County Handgun Charges Dismissed: What it Could Mean for Future Gun Cases in NJ
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Retroactively Applies Bruen Decision to Second Degree Unlawful Possession of a Handgun Charges in Middlesex County, So What’s Next for NJ Laws Restricting Guns?
The decision in State vs. Wade concerned the constitutionality of the state’s charges for unlawful handgun possession under New Jersey law that predates the U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association vs. Bruen. The Superior Court judge retroactively applied the Bruen decision to the defendants’ handgun possession charges. This court case could pave the way for many more like it in the future in New Jersey. So what happened in the Wade case and why is it important for future legal challenges to New Jersey’s stringent gun laws? Here, we will examine the meaning and implications of this decision and why it may provide opportunities for more firearms case dismissals moving forward.
Using the Unconstitutional Argument to Win a Gun Case in New Jersey
That Bruen decision struck down New York state’s restrictions, which required a showing of specific need for a carry permit. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this requirement constituted an infringement on an individual’s Second and Fourteenth Amendment rights to bear arms for protection and, therefore, was unconstitutional. After Bruen, the right to carry a gun for protection is presumptively guaranteed, and the state has the burden to show that gun regulations affecting a person’s Second Amendment rights are consistent with the nation’s gun regulatory history.
Before Bruen, an applicant for a carry permit in New Jersey had to prove that they had good moral character, appropriate training for safely handling a weapon, and a justifiable need for the handgun carry permit in order to qualify for one. Justifiable need meant that a person suffered specific threats or prior attacks warranting the need for protection, or an ongoing danger to their safety in the course of their employment. Typically, those with occupations that placed them at risk for their lives could demonstrate the need for a permit to carry a firearm. Otherwise, an individual merely asserting the desire for protection was insufficient to obtain a carry permit.
In the case of State vs. Wade, the defendant’s motion stated that the Bruen decision rendered N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1) unconstitutional. The state contended that only the portion requiring justifiable need was struck down in Bruen, arguing that the rest is enforceable.
Learning from State vs. Wade
State vs. Wade in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County, ruled on a motion to dismiss counts one and two of the defendants’ indictments, second degree unlawful handgun possession against each. The facts of the case are as follows. In May of 2019, the police found two firearms in Wade and the co-defendant Stringer’s car. Both were indicted and charged with unlawful handgun possession in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1), as well as possession of hollow-nose bullets, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(f).
Defense counsel submitted an affidavit asserting that defendant Wade had no disqualifying factors that would subject him to indictable charges for having a handgun, such as a criminal history of indictable criminal convictions or a disorderly persons offense involving domestic violence. Further, he is not disqualified from gun ownership by disqualifying factors under the law. And finally, the defendant was never adjudicated delinquent for an offense that, if committed by an adult, would have been an indictable offense. In other words, the defendant was not legally prohibited from owning a handgun under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2 or N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c). The state’s charges for unlawful possession rest on the missing carry permit.
The distinction between the Wade case and the Bruen case is that the appellant’s carry permit application was denied in the latter. Conversely, Wade never applied for a gun permit. Thus, the Superior Court then focused on whether Wade needed to have applied before availing himself of the Bruen decision. After a review of case law that retroactively applied the First Amendment and other constitutional rights to defendant convictions, the court determined that Bruen did invalidate the pre-Bruen carry permit regulation.
The Superior Court analogized First Amendment cases that determined that a person cannot be prosecuted by an unconstitutional law for exercising a constitutionally protected right, such as the right to free speech. Thus, ordinances requiring a permit to distribute pamphlets, for organization membership, or to participate in a parade, run afoul of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments and are therefore, unconstitutional (Lovell vs. City Griffin 303 US 444, Staub vs. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, Shuttlesworth vs. Birmingham 394 U.S. 147). The court found these cases analogous in so far as the regulations are, on their face, unconstitutional.
Severability of a Firearm Requirement from the Others under NJ Law
The court in the Wade case disagreed with the state that the statute’s justifiable need provision is severable from the other two requirements (showing good moral character and training). The court determined that the question is not severability so much as the constitutionality of the law as written and enforced at the time of the defendants’ charges. Relying on Shuttlesworth and other cases, the court reasoned that when a law is unconstitutional as written, a revised version of the law to make it more constitutional does not render a conviction under the reconstructed law constitutional.
The court wrote that the Bruen decision prioritized firearm protection rights under the Second Amendment and rendered regulations like New Jersey’s unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the case’s significance will be further determined in its journey through the court system. The Appellate Court may affirm or overturn the Superior Court’s decision, and the case may then proceed to the New Jersey Supreme Court for further clarification.
Looking Toward the Future for New Jersey’s Stringent Gun Regulations
The court’s granting of the defendants’ dismissal motion because Bruen rendered the handgun permit regulations underpinning N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1) unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable, has significant meaning. The decision has wide-ranging implications for defendants charged with unlawfully possessing a weapon without a permit in this state. Many criminal sentences are longer due to multiple convictions, including those for unpermitted handgun convictions, which often involve guns that are found in a vehicle during a routine traffic stop or drug bust. As a result, other defendants facing charges for unlawful possession of a handgun without a carry permit may challenge or avoid convictions due to Bruen and the expansion of firearms rights that came with it.
The Wade ruling may open the door for many more dismissal motions and appeals to overturn indictments and convictions. Additionally, since a second degree unlawful possession of a firearm conviction results in a prison sentence of five to ten years, the Superior Court’s decision may provide opportunities for many defendants to shave off years of a potential sentence or dismiss their criminal case entirely. Although the state, bolstered by the Attorney General’s directive not to enforce the justifiable need portion of the statute, may insist that an individual at least applies for a carry permit, Wade makes it substantially more difficult for a court to decide in favor of the state regarding a dismissal action based on these grounds. At the very least, it shows the importance of future challenges to the constitutionality of New Jersey’s laws regarding gun permits and lawful versus unlawful possession of a firearm.
Determine the Best Approach to Your Weapons Case with Help from an Accomplished NJ Attorney
With this in mind, it is paramount to consult with an experienced New Jersey gun attorney if you have questions about the best arguments and strategies to avoid your conviction for unlawful firearm possession. Contact the attorneys at The Tormey Law Firm for immediate assistance with your guns or weapons case. Our legal team has handled thousands of cases throughout NJ involving unlawful firearms possession charges and we are available anytime, day or night, to assist you. The consultation is always free and one of our talented firearms defense lawyers can provide integral information that may turn the tide of your case and preserve your future. Call (201)-614-2474 today.