A Town of Lockport man who was a passenger during a traffic stop was charged when he turned over a loaded semiautomatic handgun in a holster from the glove compartment to an officer on Saturday. The gun was legal, but police say the 10 rounds of 9 mm ammunition found in the magazine were not, because they violated the state law that states it is unlawful for any person to knowingly possess a magazine with more than seven rounds.
Lawfully possessed handgun. Not used in an unlawful manner. Guy who advised the police openly that he possessed the gun and did everything to assure the safety of all involved. No issues of his being a bad dude in any way. Except that he had 10 bullets in the magazine, which was three more than the law allows.
Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert said this is the first time city police have made an arrest involving the New York SAFE Act and admitted they were getting compared to Nazis on social media.
“One of the comments said, ‘When are you going to start loading people into cattle cars?’ ” said Eggert.
See what they did there? The State of New York passed a law, part of which prohibited the three bullets over the line. So now it’s the cops’ fault?
The problem is one that happens over and over, and which criminal defense lawyers (including the one who writes here) keep railing about in order to get it into the thick head of politicians, academics and the public: criminal laws crafted after a particular tragedy carry the weight of that tragedy as justification for its prohibitions. But they are later applied to all people under all circumstances. This is the law of unintended consequences, and no court can reverse it.
The point of the law, which came on the heels of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, was to limit the number of bullets a person could lawfully carry in a weapon’s magazine so that they wouldn’t be able to shoot too many children.
Why seven bullets? Why not ten? Why not two, for that matter? The argument centered around how many bullets a “legitimate” hunter or sports shooter might need. After all, there would be plenty of time to reload and no need to have the ready availability of enough bullets to kill a classroom full of children. That’s what happens when laws are driven by unique circumstances.
And why did the defendant have ten bullets in his magazine instead of the lawful seven? Beats me. Maybe he miscounted. Maybe he just filled up the magazine with what he had sitting in front of him. Maybe he’s math-challenged. Who knows? What is known is that he didn’t do it to kill children, or to commit any other crime. He just did it.
But he’s not the guy we want to stop, you cry. What’s wrong with these cops, arresting a good guy when the law was meant for bad guys?
But he said the department’s role is to enforce the law, whether it is popular or not.
“It’s on the books, and if we see it, we have to do something about it,” Eggert said.
That’s exactly right. It’s not the proper role of the police to decide what laws they deem worthy of enforcing, or which defendants they deem sufficiently good or bad to warrant arrest. The legislature passes laws. The governor signs them. The police enforce them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and to excoriate the cops for doing their job properly is misguided.
Could the police officer have exercised discretion? Sure. They do so all the time, though that too tends to anger people who see it as the police as imposing their subjective views on the public rather than the collective view of duly elected lawmakers. Who are the cops to decide that they don’t need to enforce a law?
The point isn’t to be angry about what happened here, but rather to both direct the anger toward the culpable party, in this case the legislature, and to learn from it not to do the same thing the next time.
Hopefully, Paul A. Wojdan will be cut a break by the prosecutor, and either allowed to plead down to a violation, given an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or cut loose altogether. Not because he didn’t break the law. He did, although it appears that there might be a very viable argument that the search of his magazine was unconstitutional and the evidence should be suppressed.
No, Wojdan is not the person we had in mind when the law was enacted. No, we won’t sleep any better knowing that Wojdan was arrested. No, we will not feel that society is any safer by saddling Wojdan with a criminal conviction. In fact, it’s all pretty nuts.
But this is the law passed in the heat of passion following the Newtown tragedy. And Wojdan broke this law. If you have a problem with it, your problem is with the law and the processes that drive the creation of laws to prevent these sorts of tragedies. While they wouldn’t have any meaningful impact on anyone bent on doing the harm the law exists to prevent, they will have dire consequences for the people who, for whatever dopey reason, violate it without any ill intent whatsoever.
Then again, there will also be people who will care nothing about Wojdan’s arrest or even his subsequent conviction, because it’s the price that must be paid to avenge the Newtown shooting and prevent it from ever happening again. It won’t, of course, and the paradox of concern and callousness is apparent, but they will be the righteous voices calling for new crimes when the next tragedy happens.