Fourteen years after being forced to plead guilty to the “crime” of owning a gun in Washington, the blot against the record of Dave Magnus may be cleared. On Thursday, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals recognized that one should not bear a stigma for the past possession of a firearm in the nation’s capital for the purpose of self-defense. “A conviction for conduct that is not criminal, but is instead constitutionally-protected, is the ultimate miscarriage of justice,” Judge Stephen H. Glickman wrote in the 12-page decision.
Other officials failed to see matters with such clarity. The U.S. Attorney’s office drew fire from the appellate judges during oral arguments in the case for claiming, in essence, that there was no realistic way such gun possession cases could be reopened, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 Heller decision rejecting the District’s gun ban as unconstitutional.
Mr. Magnus got into trouble in 1996 when police raided the residence in which he rented a room. Officers found .357 magnum and .45 caliber pistols among his belongings, but prosecutors focused on the misleading fact that drugs were found elsewhere in the boarding house. Gaillard T. Hunt, the attorney who represented Mr. Magnus on his appeal, insists his client had nothing to do with the drugs. “It was a pretty clear situation,” Mr. Hunt explained to The Washington Times. “The place was a house with several rooms rented out in it and each room had its own lock on the door. The marijuana and the large amounts of cash belonged to someone else in someone else’s room.”
No drug charges stuck to Mr. Magnus, who never has been convicted of a serious crime - aside from bogus gun charges. Considering the state of the law at the time, those particular charges were serious enough. Mr. Magnus saw no alternative but to plead guilty as part of a deal to avoid jail time. Years later, he wanted his conviction erased in light of the Heller decision, but a trial court judge denied the request without a hearing on the grounds that one purportedly waives his constitutional rights by entering a guilty plea. Under such a reading of the law, reversing a conviction for a noncrime would be impossible.
Fortunately, the three-judge appellate panel thought otherwise. It ordered the trial court to reopen the case to determine whether the guns in question were in any way used to further an actual crime. Should the facts prove Mr. Magnus was innocent, the trial court would have little choice but to absolve the unjust past conviction.
The appellate court’s well-balanced reasoning reveals how far gun rights have advanced in the past few years, thanks in large measure to the National Rifle Association. The group’s push in courts and statehouses around the country has brought us to the point where even past harms are being redressed. More work needs to be done to ensure law-abiding residents of the District can own and carry guns without unnecessary red tape, but last week’s ruling fires a shot across the bow of D.C. bureaucrats who need a reminder that the Second Amendment is the law of the land.