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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Minnesota top court debates gun law interpretation in ‘sovereign citizen’ case

A suspected drug dealer and "sovereign citizen" took no part in his own trial defense, but argued at the Supreme Court that he should not have been convicted based on a misreading of a possession statute.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The case of a suspected drug dealer with “sovereign citizen” leanings prompted the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday to deliberate the language used in a Minnesota statute creating enhanced penalties for people found possessing both large quantities of drugs and guns. 

The state's highest court considered the meaning of the word "immediate" as used in Minnesota’s controlled-substance possession statute. The statute was amended in 2016 in an effort to reduce penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenses while increasing them for those found moving more serious weight and in possession of firearms. That includes those found with guns “on their person or within immediate reach.” 

After Brandon Moore was found with over 100 grams of methamphetamine mixture and a handgun in the locked glove box of his Chevrolet Impala, he was convicted on controlled substance and gun possession charges. On appeal, he points out the firearm charge, which he says stretched the definition of “immediate reach.”

“The word ‘within’ is used in the phrase ‘within immediate reach’ to limit by both time and distance,” Moore argued in a brief. If he could not reach the firearm “without delay,” Moore said, it could not be within “immediate” reach, given that the gun was locked away, with the key in the car’s ignition.

At oral arguments Tuesday morning, Assistant State Public Defender Andrea Barts said that finding otherwise would render the word “immediate” redundant and violate the canon against surplusage, referencing the usual guide in constructing laws that says every word should be given deliberate, nonduplicative meaning.

Moore, 52, had represented himself in the case's original proceedings in Minnesota federal court — or, as he told it, opted out of any representation for the fictional entity that bore the name Brandon Moore, with which he claimed to have no affiliation — and chose not to appear at trial, saying, “I don’t participate in no public function.” 

Moore’s failure to appear at trial didn’t endear him to the state's Supreme Court.

“I mean, the guy didn’t show up for trial,” Justice Paul Thissen pointed out to Barts. “He could have argued, had he actually shown up, the argument you’re making.” 

“Why not just leave this to reasonable jurors?” he asked. 

Arguing for the prosecution, Assistant Attorney General Ed Stockmeyer agreed with Thissen.

“Ultimately, it’s for the jury, and the appellate court should ask ‘what could the jury have reasonably concluded?’” he said.

Nevertheless, he advocated an interpretation of “immediate” based exclusively on the word’s spatial definition: “close at hand; near.” 

“Appellant’s rule, this strict, instantaneous ‘without-any-passage-of-time’ rule, would narrow the definition so much that it would be almost impossible to prosecute,” he told the court. 

“If the court adopts sort of a ‘ready-access’ test, that would be ok. Here, the defendant did have the key,” and could have accessed the gun readily, he argued. In briefing, the prosecution dismissed the idea of the surplusage defense, noting that the statute was “littered with obvious surplusage.” 

Moore’s stance during his trial borrowed heavily from “sovereign citizen” doctrine — a loose collection of conspiratorial beliefs which encourage the use of outdated or unsupported legal jargon to claim immunity from U.S. law. Moore repeatedly asked the trial judge about his oath to the U.S. Constitution and cited the Uniform Commercial Code as evidence that he had been “kidnapped” by law enforcement when his car was stopped.

Advisory counsel, appointed by the court, was present for trial but did nothing to defend Moore, at his insistence. A jury found him guilty of two counts of aggravated first-degree controlled substance crime, both premised in part on the proximity of the gun, and one count of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. He was sentenced to 98 months in prison. 

Moore exercised his right to counsel just before sentencing, and the state public defender’s office appealed the two possession counts to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed Moore’s convictions, but the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on the “immediate reach” issue. 

Categories / Criminal, Regional

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