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Fun Opinion Reverses Conviction for Accidental Firearm Possession

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 15, 2014 6:53 PM

If there's one thing I think of when I think of the First Circuit, it's the judges' unique writing styles. We've spent a lot of ink praising the unique stylings of Senior Judge Bruce Selya, but he's not the only person whose opinions stand out -- his successor, Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, really deserves a shout-out as well.

Take today's opinion for instance. She starts with this:

Foster Starks, Jr. was not having a good day. First, he learned that his son had been arrested, then he was tasked with the unenviable job of retrieving a rental car from the son's irate girlfriend. Lastly, as he was nearing home that night, he saw a State Trooper's blue lights reflected in the rental's rearview mirror. So one could say that the cherry on the cake of Starks's day was the Trooper's discovery of the bag on the seat beside him -- containing, as it did, a gun and two boxes of ammunition.

It's great storytelling, and the ending ought to brighten Starks' otherwise bad streak of luck.

This Guy Got Screwed

There's really no nice way to put it: Starks really seems to have gotten screwed at every point of this case. He was pulled over, initially, after he dropped a lit cigarette on the carpet and pulled over to retrieve it. The trooper followed him, then pulled him over because the car registration listed the wrong color, but also for driving too slow, and for committing lane violations (or for being black, as his counsel argued).

It wasn't his car. The guns and ammo (which the officer could totally see through the translucent bag ... wink?) weren't his. The counterfeit Oxycontin in the glove box wasn't his. But, he got charged with a felon in possession of a firearm charge anyway.

And the district court wouldn't let him challenge the search of the vehicle because he was an unauthorized, unlicensed driver of the rental. (The rental company didn't authorize him to drive, but the person who rented the car did. A more proper descriptor might be semi-authorized.)

And then, during his closing, the prosecutor told the jury that the judge had already ruled that the stop and search were legal, even though the judge only held that Starks lacked standing -- an important difference.

Final score: 210 months for Starks.

Easy Reversal

After reviewing all of the motions, arguments, and a desperate attempt to get in statements by Starks' son's girlfriend (who previously denied, then admitted, to packing the guns and ammo) -- she asserted her Fifth Amendment rights -- Judge Thompson got to the surprisingly easy reversal on the "unauthorized driver" issue: Starks did have standing to contest the legality of the stop.

"In Brendlin, the Supreme Court determined that a passenger traveling in a car is seized along with the driver, and therefore has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the stop," Judge Thompson noted. "Even accepting the district court's finding that Starks was an unlicensed, unauthorized driver, his status was still no less than that of a passenger."

Though the standing to contest the stop issue was dispositive, Judge Thompson, "for the sake of thoroughness," made a few bonus points. She first stated the prosecutor's closing was "not only inappropriate, it was legally incorrect." She also held that the district court didn't abuse its discretion by keeping out the girlfriend's statements, as they were uncorroborated and her grand jury testimony wasn't fully tested by the government.

Starks was pulled over in 2009. Since then, he's had nothing but bad luck with the system. Maybe this ruling portends a change in fortune.

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