During my twitter exchange yesterday with Mike Riggs, a writer who focuses on civil liberties and criminal justices issues at Reason magazine, I was struck by how the details matter when you write about criminal justice issues.
Mike is obviously a smart guy, and earnest about his work. See the correction he put up on his post about mandatory minimums. He wants to accurately describe the law, and also to comment on it. Since he and I share a distaste for mandatory minimums and, I’m assuming, the drug war, I’m going to say his heart’s in the right place.
But the details do matter because you get credibility if you’re accurately describing the law, and then commenting upon it. Kudos to him for the correction. And, of course, I make mistakes too, or improperly characterize issues that deserve more nuance. So shoot me an email if you have questions.
Let me focus on another issue that is crucial and about which entire appellate law has developed.
Mike, in writing about the 18 USC 924(c) charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, writes in facts pulled from a real world case:
When police move in to arrest Weldon, they find guns in his house. Weldon has never fired these guns, never used them to coerce anyone. He has, however, sold pot three times* while in possession of a firearm, so prosecutors charge Weldon with “multiple counts of possession of a gun during a drug trafficking offense.”
Not quite. Mere possession of a firearm alone that is incidental but not “in furtherance of” a federal drug trafficking offense does not qualify as a crime under 924(c), although it may be a crime under a different act if the firearm is stolen or if the person possessing the firearm is a convicted felon for federal purposes.
As the United States Sentencing Commissions’s guide (pdf) on firearms offenses notes:
[W]here the defendant only possessed the firearm and the underlying offense is a drug trafficking offense, the Sixth Circuit held that “[i]n order for the possession to be in furtherance of a drug crime, the firearm must be strategically located so that it is quickly and easily available for use” and that other relevant factors “include whether the gun was loaded, the type of weapon, the legality of its possession, the type of drug activity conducted, and the time and
circumstances under which the firearm was found.” United States v. Mackey, 265 F.3d 457, 462 (6th Cir. 2001).
Back to Mike. Certainly a lot of things get lost in the translation of legal arguments to journalism. And if you didn’t have to confront what “in furtherance” means in a real live case involving a defendant facing life (owing to various other sentencing factors), you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that issue.
Nonetheless, it’s important to accurately write about this stuff. It lends credibility. Since federal criminal law is incredibly complicated, it helps to doublecheck your work.