Stiffer penalties sought for illegal gun possession

Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005

Petty arguments that lead to shootings have spurred Glenn F. Ivey, Prince George's County state's attorney, to seek tougher penalties for illegal gun possession.

‘‘We’ve got people getting shot over things that would not even have been a fight 20 years ago,” Ivey said.

For example, in March 2004, Phillip Beverly was standing in line at the 51 Club liquor store in Temple Hills with his sister when Edward Hall, standing behind them, began pulling at the waist of the girl’s pants. Beverly, 26, began arguing with Hall in his sister’s defense. Hall then pulled out a gun and fired several times, hitting Beverly and the girl, according to court documents. Beverly died later that day. His sister survived the gunshot wound to her leg.

Fifteen months later, Jermain Berry and Edward Huff had already argued for months over dog fights and parking spaces in their Chapel Oaks community. Their disputes came to a head June 25 over Berry’s dog barking. Witnesses said the argument quickly escalated. Berry, 22, and Huff, 28, exchanged gunfire, according to police, killing Huff at the scene. Berry died on his way to Prince George’s Hospital Center.

‘‘One concern that we have with this incident is just the availability of weapons, specifically handguns,” said Maj. Vincent Gay, commander of the criminal investigation division for the Prince George’s County Police Department.

Handguns were used in 83 percent of the homicides in the county this year. County police are still analyzing how many were illegal gun possessions and whether any of the guns involved in these cases were registered to the alleged shooters is still under investigation.

The increasing homicides in the county – a 17 percent increase from this time last year – many of which began over trivial conflicts, have led Ivey to seek a one-year minimum sentence for all first-time illegal gun possessions, even if the defendant was not involved in any other criminal activity.

The maximum penalty under Maryland law for illegal possession of a firearm is three years in prison. Statewide, first-time offenders traditionally receive 30 to 60 days in jail or probation for illegal gun possession.

‘‘Even within the context of the [sentencing] guidelines, the sentences were relatively low,“ Ivey said.

Ivey admits the mandate is not likely to stop career criminals but said those carrying a firearm to impress peers might think twice if someone they know is sent to jail for a year.

‘‘[The tougher sentencing] would not have worked if the judges hadn’t thought it was reasonable and acceptable,” he said.

County prosecutors are passing repeat offender cases on to federal court where the penalties are greater.

The stronger sentencing is raising questions with incarceration policy groups.

‘‘We’re all aware of what’s going on in Prince George’ County this year ... . The unintended consequences of the decision to prosecute everyone for a year is that it could flood the courts and jail with people that do not necessarily need to be there,” said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director and co-founder of the Justice Policy Institute, a prison-reform think tank based in the District.

At the Prince George’s County jail in Upper Marlboro, minimum-security occupants — those sentenced to 18 months or less in county courts — are the largest population. The entire jail population averaged at 1,306 last week.

‘‘At 1,500, we would be pretty crowded,“ said Vicki Duncan, public information officer for the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections.

Even if the illegal gun prosecutions cause the jail to swell beyond capacity, Duncan said there are always creative sentencing options to consider. Alternatives include pretrial release and electronic monitoring with ankle bracelets for detainees awaiting court sentencing.

‘‘You could get that kind of sentence, but then that sentence can be served on home detention,” Duncan said.

The department of corrections and judges would decide how the sentence is served.

Department of Corrections Director Barry L. Stanton is planning to meet with county and state officials soon to discuss available options if the jail population goes up significantly, Duncan said.

Social structures could also be strained by casting a wider net.

‘‘Guns are so pervasive in our society that this could be netting a whole bunch of people who really don’t bear that much threat to the community,” Ziedenberg said. ‘‘That’s going to have an impact on the county’s ability to deal with the people they are most concerned about.”

But with the county jail space well under capacity, officials' concerns about space are low.

‘‘As far as I know we haven’t had that scenario,” Ivey said.

E-mail Tiesha Higgins at