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Wife Who Let Felon Husband Borrow Rifle Did Not Commit a Crime

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 19, 2016 12:08 PM

A woman who operated an illegal marijuana farm in the northeastern United States is apparently guilty of a crime of illegally growing pot, but not for aiding and abetting, according to the First Circuit.

The federal appeals court determined that a jury should not have been allowed to convict Darlene Ford for letting her husband borrow her assault rifle for target practice merely because she "had reason to know" of his felonious past.

Guns, Pot, and Business

Darlene Ford and the rest of the Ford family operated a marijuana growing business out of Monroe, Maine that ran like a well oiled machine. Their grow beds were well lit, the premises were clean, and none of the operators were engaged in the business to feed a habit.

When law enforcement eventually brought an end to the business, the family was indicted and convicted of a variety of drug related crimes. But Darlene also was charged and convicted at the district level under 18 U.S.C.'s "aiding and abetting" provision that aggravates criminal wrongdoing. It turned out that she had earlier let her husband borrow one of her assault rifles for "target practice."

What she didn't actually know (or at least the district court failed to prove she knew beyond a reasonable doubt) was that her husband was actually a convicted felon. Letting her husband borrow her gun implicated federal criminal laws that forbid felony possession of a firearm.

"Had Reason to Know" Is Not Good Enough

The First Circuit felt that the district erred in allowing Darlene's conviction for aiding and abetting. The language that Congress used in 18 U.S.C. is vague: "Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal." 18 U.S.C. § 2(a).

Lacking from this is a specific reference to mens rea. But the circuit looked to the use of the words chosen and extrapolated that aids, abets and other such similar vocabulary suggest "that a person violates section 2 only the person has 'chosen, with full knowledge, to participate in the illegal scheme.'" This was quoted from Rosemond v. United States.

Further, the circuit was reticent to interpret Congress' intent to mean that mere negligence could turn an innocent bystander into an instant felon. After all, the handing off of a gun did not fall, the circuit felt, under those "public safety" crimes that require strict liability.

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