Prosecutor aims to keep guns off streets Stiffer sentences sought for gun possession charges

December 01, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County's top prosecutor says he has a message for anyone packing heat: Leave your guns at home.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee has formed a prosecution unit to keep guns off the streets by making sure that every handgun possession charge is specifically targeted for tough prosecution.

Weathersbee said the newly formed Handgun Offender Prosecution Team program means District Court cases with charges that include handgun possession will be assigned to Thomas J. Pryal, who will transfer the case to Circuit Court and automatically seek jail time of up to three years.

Pryal, a seven-year prosecutor, also will oppose any efforts to keep the trials of 16- and 17-year-olds charged with handgun possession in juvenile court, where the punishments are generally less severe.

Under Maryland law, decisions on sentences and on a juvenile offender's court status before trial are left up to the trial judge.

But Weathersbee said by cracking down on handgun cases, he hopes to discourage what is an alarming trend nationally and locally -- an increasing number of juveniles carrying handguns.

"We can only hope that the judges take these cases seriously and that people get the message that if they have guns they should keep them at home," Weathersbee said.

Weathersbee said the effort is aimed at cases where motorists stopped by police for traffic or minor drug violations are also caught illegally carrying a handgun.

The program was announced last week after a monthlong pilot study in which prosecutors found that five out of 10 District Court handgun possession cases involved juveniles, Weathersbee said.

Anne Arundel County public defender Alan Friedman said the program will not necessarily mean stiffer sentences because sentencing minimums and maximums for handgun possession are spelled out by state law.

He agreed with the goal of getting guns away from kids. But he said a more comprehensive approach must be taken to reverse the tide of juvenile gun violence.

"The question is, what are we going to do to stop kids from carrying guns?" he said. "The problem is bigger than redistributing cases from the District Court to the Circuit Court."

But Pryal said the program at least will ensure that handgun cases get a closer look by prosecutors and a judge.

L Maryland law permits ownership of handguns without a permit.

But state police permits are required for anyone who plans to carry a handgun or transport one in a car or truck. There are nTC several exceptions to the permit requirement, such as transporting a gun for shooting competitions, for target practices or for repairs to a gun shop.

The law says those caught illegally "wearing, carrying or transporting" a handgun are subject to 30 days to three years in prison for a first offense and to one year to three years for a second offense, Weathersbee said.

Weathersbee said the need for the program was discovered about two years ago when his office began reviewing or "screening" charging documents filed in every District Court case by the police and by private citizens.

Weathersbee said that prosecutors discovered an increasing number of handguns being carried by those arrested for traffic and minor drug offenses.

Anne Arundel County police statistics show that the number of weapon offenses increased three percent during the first nine months of this year. The numbers include charges for illegally carrying other types of concealed weapons, such as knives. But prosecutors said illegal handgun possession cases make up the vast majority of those charged.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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