Feds press gun charges to get ‘worst of the worst’ off streets

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY KYLE SCHWAB Staff Writer [email protected]­la­homan.com

Twice as many sus­pects have been charged with gun of­fenses in Ok­la­homa City fed­eral court since the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment last year rein­vig­o­rated a pro­gramto re­duce vi­o­lent crime na­tion­wide.

“The process in the fed­eral sys­tem moves real quickly,” fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Robert Troester said. “We can get them de­tained quickly, we can get them set for trial quickly and then get them sen­tenced quickly.

“And they could be sent to a prison half­way across the United States with­out the abil­ity to con­tinue their in­flu­ence and be a threat to the com­mu­nity.”

The dra­matic in­crease comes from Project Safe Neigh­bor­hoods, which was re­vived in Oc­to­ber 2017. Its mis­sion is to tar­get “the worst of the worst of­fend­ers” for fed­eral prose­cu­tion on firearm posses­sion charges, Troester said. Many of those charged are felons who can­not legally pos­sess a firearm or am­mu­ni­tion un­der fed­eral law.

“Our over­rid­ing goal in this en­tire PSN and the gun ini­tia­tive is to help keep our com­mu­ni­ties safe,” said Troester, the lead pros­e­cu­tor for the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in the Western Dis­trict of Ok­la­homa.

The pros­e­cu­tor said his of­fice also has put a spe­cial em­pha­sis on tar­get­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence of­fend­ers.

Last fis­cal year, 108 in­di­vid­u­als were charged in Ok­la­homa City fed­eral court with gun of­fenses. The prior fis­cal year saw only 52 in­di­vid­u­als charged in gun­re­lated of­fenses. The last fed­eral fis­cal year ran from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30.

Pros­e­cu­tors are fo­cus­ing, in part, on “per­pet­u­ally bad” felons, Troester said.

“They’ve ob­vi­ously shown a propen­sity to com­mit crimes and vi­o­lent crimes . ... If they’ve got more than three, we’re def­i­nitely go­ing af­ter them be­cause, let’s face it, the first sev­eral con­vic­tions that they had ... ob­vi­ously didn’t cor­rect the be­hav­ior,” he said. “We’re pro­tect­ing ... so­ci­ety at large from some un­known fu­ture crime that we think is pos­si­bly go­ing to be com­mit­ted.”

The max­i­mum pun­ish­ment for a felon in posses­sion of a firearm is 10 years in fed­eral prison. But if a felon has three prior con­vic­tions for ei­ther vi­o­lent felonies or se­ri­ous drug of­fenses, the pun­ish­ment range jumps to a min­i­mum of 15 years to a max­i­mum of life in prison. Of­fend­ers must serve 85 per­cent of their prison sen­tences.

Ok­la­homa County Pub­lic De­fender Bob Ravitz said he has no prob­lem with fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors tar­get­ing felons who have shown a propen­sity to con­tinue com­mit­ting crimes. He said it’s a good way to get guns off the street and take them away from peo­ple who have pre­vi­ously com­mit­ted crimes.

“I think they should be ex­pe­dited through the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” Ravitz said. “And I think it’s a good idea be­cause fed­eral courts also have re­sources to maybe help them.”

Top pri­or­ity

Af­ter decades of de­clin­ing crime trends, the FBI re­ported a rise in vi­o­lent crimes be­tween 2014 and 2016. This spike prompted DOJ to jump start Project Safe Neigh­bor­hoods, which orig­i­nally launched in 2001.

“It was a recog­ni­tion that there was an up­swing in vi­o­lent crime,” Troester said.

DOJ then di­rected the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fices across the coun­try to de­velop crime-re­duc­tion strate­gies and com­bat gun vi­o­lence.

“We had been do­ing these cases all along but with lim­ited re­sources avail­able to es­tab­lish it as a sig­na­ture pri­or­ity,” Troester said.

But now with this ini­tia­tive be­com­ing a top pri­or­ity, sec­ond only to fight­ing ter­ror­ism, the Western Dis­trict will re­ceive two ad­di­tional pros­e­cu­tors in De­cem­ber, Troester said.

“This has been el­e­vated to that No. 2 sta­tus, which comes with it, the re­sources from Wash­ing­ton,” the pros­e­cu­tor said.

The project in­volves a pre­ven­tion pro­gram that ed­u­cates con­victs on the gun laws and the po­ten­tial con­se­quences if caught with a firearm.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence fo­cus

Troester said his team also has ap­proached this di­rec­tive from a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence an­gle that is “unique across the coun­try.”

Un­der fed­eral law, any­one sub­ject to a pro­tec­tive or­der or who has a mis­de­meanor do­mes­tic vi­o­lence con­vic­tion is pro­hib­ited from hav­ing a firearm, said Lori Hines, the deputy crim­i­nal chief over the dis­trict’s vi­o­lent crimes unit.

“The rea­son that those are key to our ini­tia­tive is that they are pro­hi­bi­tions against pos­sess­ing a firearm,” she said. “We re­al­ized that there is a way to re­move do­mes­tic vi­o­lence of­fend­ers from the com­mu­nity with­out them hav­ing had prior felony con­vic­tions.”

State pros­e­cu­tors can charge felons with gun posses­sion of­fenses but these other two fed­eral cat­e­gories are not avail­able to them.

These two gun pro­hi­bi­tions had been avail­able to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors but weren’t be­ing charged much. Now, 35 per­cent of the gun cases in Ok­la­homa City fed­eral court are do­mes­tic vi­o­lence-re­lated, Hines said.

Troester said, “This is where we can make a dif­fer­ence across our en­tire com­mu­nity.”

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence knows no so­cioe­co­nomic, eth­nic or ed­u­ca­tional bound­aries, he said.

The pros­e­cu­tor said part­ner­ships with state and lo­cal law en­force­ment are “paramount” in mak­ing this ef­fec­tive.

“There’s so many cases to go around. Where can we make the most dif­fer­ence and how can we best use the fed­eral statutes to help them?” he said.

Ok­la­homa County Dis­trict At­tor­ney David Prater said he ap­pre­ci­ates the fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors us­ing their stat­ues to charge vi­o­lent crim­i­nals when he can’t.

“This unique col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween state and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors can be a model for suc­cess­fully ad­dress­ing the most vi­o­lent do­mes­tic abusers across the coun­try,” Prater said.

Robert Troester

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