Was federal offense an error of fairness?

NASA police officer fired over gun in car on BW Parkway

August 25, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

It's easy to forget that when you drive on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway south of Fort Meade, you're in a federal park. The speed limit drops to 45 mph, encouraging you to enjoy the "Gateway to our Nation's Capital" on this "scenic" 29-mile stretch of asphalt.

It's also easy to forget that once in this "park," the laws change from state to federal. And that meant, before February when the law changed, that carrying a gun on federal property was strictly prohibited.

Even if you had a conceal-carry permit from the Maryland State Police.

Even if you were a police officer.

Even if you were a police officer for the federal government.

Rodney Thomas, a police officer for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, discovered that the hard way on Sept. 24, 2006. A U.S. Park Police officer pulled him over for driving 77 mph and Thomas said he had a loaded semiautomatic pistol under the passenger seat.

He was arrested and charged with carrying a weapon on national park property. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt in January 2007 and was fined $500.

Thomas' new lawyers argue that his previous attorney failed to properly advise him of the ramifications of pleading guilty — that he would be barred from working in law enforcement — and that if he'd had "reasonable competent counsel" he would have pleaded not guilty and gone to trial.

This month, defense attorneys filed a writ of coram nobis in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that asks a judge to throw out a conviction by declaring that "an error of fundamental fairness" had occurred during the proceedings.

The writ, more common in state than in federal court, is designed as a remedy for post-conviction relief and can be used, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, when a law is changed after a person is found guilty, meaning "that the defendant was convicted for conduct that is no longer illegal."

Congress changed the law in February so that a citizen with a valid state gun permit can, according to the U.S. Park Police website, "legally possess firearms in the park."

But the change came too late for Thomas, who, because of his conviction, was fired from NASA and turned down for a job in the Prince George's County Sheriff's Office. His attorneys said in court papers that Thomas was legally permitted to carry his gun both as part of his work as a federal officer and as a private security guard in Baltimore.

While pleading guilty, Thomas told the judge that he had no previous criminal record and that, "I was not aware of the law that it was federal land and I was sworn in by the federal government, so I felt that I wasn't doing anything too wrong."

Thomas' attorney at the time, James E. McCollum Jr., told the court that had his client driven to work on Interstate 95 instead, he "wouldn't be here, quite frankly."

And had Thomas been stopped for speeding last month, he would have gotten only a speeding ticket and kept his career in law enforcement.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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