A mistake could separate a single mother from her children and send her to prison for three years. Her crime? Unlawfully possessing a gun in New Jersey that she could legally possess and carry in her home state of Pennsylvania.
Shaneen Allen, a single mother with two children, planned to spend the weekend celebrating her son’s birthday in New Jersey. Along with the supplies for the party, she made sure to pack her .380 handgun for protection. Having been robbed twice before in the same year, Allen bought the gun in Pennsylvania just one week before her drive.
While en route to her destination, a New Jersey police officer pulled her over for a traffic violation. “I was bringing a cake and the dog to the hotel room to surprise him. That’s what I was doing out there and I got pulled over at 1:00 in the morning because I was sleepy and swerved,” Allen explained.
She voluntarily informed the officer she was transporting a concealed weapon and showed him the Pennsylvania license allowing her to do so. It had no effect on the police officer.
Allen was arrested for unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of hollow-point bullets. Although it was legal for her to possess and carry the gun in Pennsylvania, strict gun laws in New Jersey made possession of the handgun there a crime. She was arrested despite the fact she had no prior criminal history and honestly believed she could travel with the gun.
If Allen is convicted of illegal possession of a weapon she would be subject to the mandatory minimum of three years in prison. “I’m very much worried because I have two kids who depend on me,” Allen said. “I’m doing this all by myself. It’s just me.”
Because Pennsylvania has reciprocity with 30 different states (the policy where the laws of one state are recognized in another), but not New Jersey, many unsuspecting citizens could be entangled in the criminal system for innocent behavior. This discrepancy raises the question of whether law-abiding citizens should be criminally punished for honestly believing they were acting within the bounds of the law.
Stories like Shaneen Allen’s should encourage meaningful dialogue about the need for reform in the criminal law. While efforts exist to enact a federal law mandating reciprocity among the 50 states, a simpler and less cumbersome solution would entail a mistake of law defense for those like Allen trapped by an ever-expanding criminal code.
Paul J. Larkin Jr. of The Heritage Foundation asserts that situations like these point toward the need for a mistake of law defense. He writes:
Properly defined and applied, a mistake of law defense would be a valuable addition to the criminal law today. It would exculpate morally blameless parties for conduct that no reasonable person would have thought was a crime. The defense would ensure that no one could be convicted of a crime when criminal liability was unforeseeable.
If the mistake of law defense were available to individuals like Shaneen Allen, persons who reasonably believed the gun they carried was legal could exercise a valuable defense against criminal charges. Consider: The average person could reasonably believe that a Pennsylvania driver’s license allows her to drive in all 50 states, so the same reasonable person could believe that a concealed carry permit would be treated in the same way. Should not the criminal law make allowances for such honest mistakes?
For Shaneen Allen, it would make all the difference in the world. “I just want people to know … mistakes happen,” she stated. “I just hope that everything turns out OK for me and my kids because I’m all they have.”
We all make mistakes. No one acting reasonably should go to prison for an honest mistake of law. All that the courts need to do to stop that from happening is to have the courage to adopt the mistake of law defense.