- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2012

A bill that would decriminalize gun and ammunition possession charges for some legal firearms owners from outside the city caught traveling through the District with their weapons goes before a D.C. Council committee Monday, a potential change to the law that comes too late for one Capitol Heights man.

The bill would allow the attorney general’s office to offer an “administrative disposition” rather than criminally prosecute cases in which residents outside the District are found in the city with unregistered guns or ammunition.

“These offenses would still be handled the same way by the [Metropolitan Police Department], and violators would still be subject to arrest,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said when he introduced the legislation in July. “This legislation is meant to deal with those cases where individuals may lawfully possess firearms or ammunition in their home states but who unknowingly transport their firearms or ammunition into the District without knowledge of the District’s firearms laws.”

One person with firsthand experience of what Mr. Mendelson describes is Dwayne Hogue, a Maryland resident and a legal gun owner.

Mr. Hogue’s life was turned upside down when he was stopped in the District with a gun in his car and criminally charged. He has been in contact with the Judiciary Committee about his case but does not plan to testify at the hearing Monday.

Wrong side of the line

Mr. Hogue, 43, was a licensed special police officer in the District. The morning of March 28, 2011, he was driving his wife and a friend to the Kmart in Hyattsville where his two passengers planned to apply for jobs, he said. Making the way from his Capitol Heights apartment, Mr. Hogue got lost, he said, and diverted briefly into the District before turning around and heading back into Prince George’s County. He was on Eastern Avenue, the dividing line between the District and Maryland, when a U.S. Park Police officer noticed the dark tint on his windows, according to court documents filed in his case.

The officer ran Mr. Hogue’s tags and found that the car registration was suspended — a result of failure to comply with a repair order issued on his car. The Park Police officer, listed in D.C. Superior Court documents as Jeffrey McKeever, wrote in his report that he sensed Mr. Hogue was nervous, so he inquired further.

“I observed three thin blue line stickers on the vehicle, and could see that he had a security uniform covering the center console of the vehicle,” Officer McKeever wrote. “I asked him where his weapon was and he stated that his gun was in the rear trunk compartment of the vehicle. Once he admitted to the possession of the handgun, he was detained while additional police officers were called to the scene.”

Ammunition was found in the purse of Rochelle Hogue, Mr. Hogue’s wife. Paperwork provided by Mr. Hogue indicated that he purchased the .45 caliber Glock four days earlier from the Maryland Small Arms Range in Upper Marlboro.

“That was a personal weapon that I just bought days before, and I was going to the range to practice with it,” Mr. Hogue said in an interview at his apartment. “My wife was just trying to get a job at Kmart and we made a wrong turn and all this happened.”

Difficult times

It’s unclear whether Mr. Hogue would have been violating Maryland law if he had been stopped just a block away off Eastern Avenue in Prince George’s County. Maryland law requires that guns transported in vehicles must be unloaded, in an enclosed case and kept separate from ammunition. The person transporting the gun must be traveling to or from a specified location.

The arms range is one locations where state law allows legal gun owners to travel with their weapons. Mr. Hogue said the weapon was in a container, although court papers did not specify whether the gun was contained.

Police arrested Mr. Hogue and charged him in the District with possession of an unregistered firearm and unlawful possession of ammunition.

Concerned about jail time and not entirely aware of the repercussions, he said, he pleaded guilty to the gun charge. Mrs. Hogue said her husband felt pressure from his court-appointed attorney to make a deal.

“It was stressful. You think about it, it’s scary. So he got him to plead guilty,” she said.

Steven Polin, Mr. Hogue’s attorney, did not return a call to his office seeking comment about the case.

In July 2011, Mr. Hogue pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm and was sentenced to six months of supervised probation. As a result, he was required to register on the Metropolitan Police Department’s gun-offender registry.

Mr. Hogue also had to report the incident to the police department’s security officers management branch. He reported the incident immediately, and his special police officer’s commission was revoked on March 29, 2011, according to documentation he provided.

With his police powers revoked and the criminal conviction on his record, Mr. Hogue said, he has been unable to return to the type of security work that has provided him a steady income for 16 years.

“That took the ability for me to support my family,” he said. “Since then, financially, we’ve been going through hard times.”

His family, including his wife, three children, ages 7, 9 and 12, and both his mother and mother-in-law, all live in an apartment unit off Walker Mill Road. They have faced eviction several times since the case was settled but have managed to scrape by, borrowing money from family and friends or charity from their church.

Questions remain

Looking back on the case, Mr. Hogue questions whether he was targeted unfairly for arrest because he is black and whether he would have been better off fighting the charges.

A U.S. Park Police spokesman declined to comment about the case or concerns that Mr. Hogue expressed about having felt intimidated when he tried to file a complaint against the officer.

“We’re not going to comment about it, as it would be part of an internal investigation,” Sgt. Paul Brooks said.

A variety of peculiarities in the case have caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Prince George’s County, which is taking a closer look.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” NAACP chapter President Bob Ross said. “There is something wrong. Exactly what it is, I don’t know. It doesn’t appear they had probable cause to stop him in the first place.”

Court documents state that Officer McKeever stopped Mr. Hogue after noticing his dark tinted windows, which could be in violation of Maryland vehicle codes. Yet the firearms charges went through the D.C. court system.

Mr. Hogue said he thinks his life will return to normal only if he is able to get his conviction overturned.

That is an uphill battle, said gun rights activists whom he has approached to review his case.

Dave Workman, a spokesman with the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash., said it can be difficult keeping abreast of the District’s complicated and evolving gun laws since the city’s near total ban on handguns was overturned in the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court case. Non-D.C. residents can get tripped up easily, he said, but federal law should provide protection for people who transport guns through different jurisdictions.

“Under federal law, if you’re going from point A to point B through a jurisdiction, you’re supposed to have some protection from local laws about firearms in your vehicle,” Mr. Workman said, citing the federal Firearms Owners’ Protection Act. “Still, he got lost. He wound up on the wrong side of an imaginary line. That shouldn’t be a crime.”

Meeting resistance

It isn’t known whether Mr. Mendelson’s bill would have changed the outcome of Mr. Hogue’s case, and the bill’s enactment remains uncertain. The bill attracted no co-sponsors on the council and has met resistance from those who say that administrative dispositions ordinarily are reserved for less-serious crimes, such as when protesters are arrested in the city.

The problem of non-D.C. residents getting stopped while transporting legal weapons through the city does not appear to be widespread but has raised concerns because of the potential consequences. Such cases are handled by the attorney general’s office, which can offer deferred sentencing to those who are charged. That option allows for charges to be dropped after a period of time if those charged follow court-ordered stipulations. The attorney general’s office is expected to provide testimony at Monday’s hearing. Others include gun rights activists and Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in the case that went to the Supreme Court and ended the city’s gun ban.

Any perception of loosening of firearms regulations is a sensitive topic in the District, which is plagued by gun violence. But the bill could make some city laws more consistent with those in neighboring states.

“It appears to me that there is a trend for them to really try to streamline these laws and try to get them more in line with those in other states,” said Thomas McKiddie, projects director with the Second Amendment Foundation.

Mr. McKiddie said prosecuting people such as Mr. Hogue under the current law doesn’t serve any purpose.

“There’s not really any justice out of that,” he said. “It just really doesn’t serve any public need turning him into a pseudo-criminal.”