Feds Limit Definition of Fugitive of Justice and Allow More People with Arrest Warrants to Purchase Firearms

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Both Pennsylvania and United States law make it illegal for a fugitive from justice to purchase or possess a firearm. In order to enforce this prohibition, the FBI maintains a database of people who are ineligible to purchase a firearm that includes people who the FBI believes to have active arrest warrants. Until recently, the ATF and the FBI used different criteria in determining who met the definition of a fugitive from justice. The FBI has traditionally used a broader definition which included anyone with an active arrest warrant. The ATF, however, adopted a more limited reading of the phrase and defined a “fugitive from justice” as a person who both had a warrant for their arrest and traveled to a different state from the state in which the warrant was issued. Thus, the use of the ATF’s definition would result in fewer people being included in the Government’s database of prohibited persons.

Recently, the Department of Justice adopted the ATF’s more limited reading of the term and ordered that the FBI remove anyone who has not crossed state lines from the database. Accordingly, the FBI removed tens of thousands of people with active warrants for their arrest from the database, and those people may now be able to pass a federal background check when attempting to purchase a gun. This also means that those people will no longer be prohibited by federal law from purchasing or possessing a gun unless they meet some other criteria which would lead to a prohibition on firearms ownership.

Although this change in definition will allow many people to successfully purchase a firearm, some will remain ineligible to actually possess a firearm. For example, federal law makes it illegal to sell a gun to someone who is ineligible to possess the gun under the state law in effect at the location of the sale. Pennsylvania law also makes it illegal for a fugitive from justice to possess a gun, and Pennsylvania courts may not decide to follow the same definition as the Justice Department. Pennsylvania appellate courts do not appear to have defined the term fugitive from justice for purposes of the state version of the Uniform Firearms Act, but the courts have suggested that the definition includes the requirement that someone leave another state for purposes of extradition procedures. Further, a governmental agency’s interpretation of a statute is not always binding on the courts, and courts could conclude that fugitive from justice has the broader meaning initially taken by the FBI. Finally, federal law also makes it illegal for a person with pending criminal charges which are punishable by more than a year in prison to possess a firearm.

The change in definitions has resulted in the removal of tens of thousands of people from the FBI’s database, but it does not necessarily mean that all of the people removed are eligible to possess a firearm. This means that if you may have an active arrest warrant, you should speak with an attorney before attempting to purchase a gun even if you have not crossed state lines. You should also speak with an attorney about clearing up the warrant. Likewise, if you are facing federal or state charges alleging that you possessed a gun illegally because you were a fugitive from justice, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately as the government may now have additional difficulty in proving those charges.

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Source: Washington Post