Detroit public defenders demand end to gun possession prosecutions

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Taking a cue from colleagues in New York and Chicago, a group of public defenders and activists in Detroit, Michigan are calling on Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to stop prosecuting anyone charged with simply possessing a firearm without a license.

According to the activists, arrests for carrying a concealed firearm without a license have soared in Wayne County since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, data released by the public defenders and community activists show there’s been a stark racial disparity in enforcement, with black residents making up 97% of those arrested for the non-violent, possessory crime.

“We noticed that the majority of the people who were being arrested were Black people, and we saw this trend continue as time passed,” said Chantá Parker, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service, which provides criminal defense representation for people who cannot afford to hire legal representation. “As the pandemic raged on, alarm bells went off for us, we thought, ‘Hey, this is a crisis,’ and what we’ve discovered is that it was a crisis of policing and prosecution.

“We believe this is an unjust practice that’s destroying the lives of Black Detroiters and it must stop.”

The majority of people, 70%, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon — a five-year felony — legally owned their guns and were instead accused of improperly storing their guns while driving. Michigan is an open-carry state, but the definition of what constitutes “open” is often misunderstood.

To me, that statistic is key, not only for the activists demanding an end to prosecutions, but for lawmakers in Michigan as well. This is precisely the reason why so many of us advocate for permitless or Constitutional Carry laws, because no one should face the prospect of five years in prison or a lifetime felony record simply for keeping their legally owned gun on their person while in their vehicle.

The coalition had another eye-opening statistic about prosecutions over the past couple of years. Pre-pandemic, cases that solely involved carrying without a license (even in your car) made up roughly 6% of the caseload in the prosecutor’s office. As of August of 2021, however, almost 30% of all cases charged by the prosecutor were carry-only cases.

Think about that for a second. Nearly one-third of all prosecutions in the Detroit area in recent months have solely revolved around the “crime” of bearing arms without a government permission slip. That’s bad enough, but what makes it even worse is that Wayne County has been taking months to approve concealed carry applications, to the point that the county was sued over the delays last year.

A coalition of gun ownership groupsand three Wayne County residentsfiled suit last week against Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, alleging Michigan’s largest county is slow in processing concealed pistol license applications and renewals, even by pandemic standards.

CPL applicants in Wayne County have been faced with long waits of a year or more for an appointment, advocates say.

“We want the court to order the clerk to do her job,” said Terry Johnson, a Detroit-based attorney for Michigan Open Carry, Inc., one of the groups bringing the suit. “The clerk hasn’t stopped doing the functions required by her job, except for the processing of CPLs.”

The lawsuit claims Garrett’s office stopped processing licenses and renewals on Feb. 21 and that her office previously took about 14 months to process applications while other Michigan counties take about two months.

To sum up: arrests and prosecutions for carrying without a license are soaring since the start of the pandemic, the majority of those arrested are legal gun owners who don’t have a carry license, and that license has been impossible for Wayne County residents to obtain in a timely manner during this same time period.

There’s no doubt that major changes are needed, and I don’t think anyone can count on Wayne County officials to do the right thing. Governor Gretchen Whitmer would undoubtably veto any Constitutional Carry bill that gets to her desk, but that shouldn’t stop Republicans in the legislature from pushing that measure along with a more limited bill that would decriminalize the possession of a legally-owned firearm while traveling. No one should go to prison for the “crime” of bearing the arm that they are legally keeping, and yet it’s happening on a regular basis in Wayne County. Putting a stop to this injustice may be an uphill battle for Republicans in the legislature, but it’s absolutely a fight worth having.