Minnesota prosecutors have taken aim at criminals with guns, sending more to prison for gun-related convictions than at any time in at least two decades.
In 2015 and 2016, prosecutors statewide received about 1,200 gun-related cases each year from police, according to a report from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. That’s up more than 50 percent from a decade earlier and more than double the cases forwarded for prosecution in 1996.
Lawmakers recently toughened the penalties for illegal possession, extending the law to bullets. Defense attorneys say that this year they’re seeing more gun charges going to trial than ever before.
The bulk of the cases come from Hennepin County, where prosecutors have collaborated with the U.S. attorney’s office to go after illegal gun possession. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman forbids prosecutors from being lenient on guns to strike plea deals.
“It’s absolutely prohibited to use the gun as a negotiation lever,” said Freeman. “Anybody who does that has got their ass in a sling here.”
Minnesota law calls for a minimum sentence of three to five years in prison for many crimes involving a gun, such as assault, drug dealing or stalking. Freeman attributed the stark rise in charges in part to prosecuting more people with violent crimes on their records caught with a firearm — a felony in Minnesota, regardless of whether they fired the weapon.
Last year, the Hennepin County attorney’s office charged 464 firearm-related crimes — every gun allegation brought by police, according to guidelines commission data.
Hennepin County’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, said the hard-line mandate from prosecutors in Minnesota’s most populous county is troubling. Acknowledging the seriousness of gun violence, Moriarty takes issue with a blanket policy that could send nonviolent offenders to prison who would be better served by probation.
“We have prosecutors who say that a person should get probation, in their opinion, but they can’t offer it because of the directions from the office,” said Moriarty. “There’s something wrong with that.”
Of the nearly 1,200 gun cases brought by police last year statewide, prosecutors charged 1,085 — nearly 400 more than a decade ago, according to the sentencing commission data.
Of those, 758 ended in convictions and 430 resulted in mandatory minimum prison sentences.
More than half of those mandatory minimum sentences were handed down in Hennepin County.
“We would commend the county attorney’s office for fully enforcing these statutes,” said the Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota, which has lobbied for stricter gun laws. “The presence of a gun in the home of someone who is prohibited from having one should be taken seriously.”
Freeman said his strict policy on gun cases isn’t new. He even has a saying around the office: “If you charge a gun, don’t eat a gun.”
He attributed the recent bump in charges in part to better coordination with federal prosecutors. Under the tenure of former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who resigned at the request of President Donald Trump this year, two of Hennepin County’s top prosecutors met with federal prosecutors every two weeks to discuss gun cases, he said. Many of these discussions also resulted in federal charges, said Freeman, cases that also hit record highs last year, often translating to longer prison sentences than state cases.
In 2015, state legislators expanded the penalties on illegal gun possession. Violent felons caught with ammunition — even if there’s no gun — are subject to the same mandatory minimum prison sentences.
In addition to stepped-up prosecutions, Freeman also sees the rise as a sign of more guns on the streets.
He cited a 2015 gunfight in downtown Minneapolis near a light-rail station on Hennepin Avenue and 5th Street S. Shortly after bar close, three men in their 20s exchanged gunfire through a crowd of 50 people, hitting six in the crossfire. Freeman’s office charged one of them, Detroit Davis-Riley, with 15 counts, including assault with a deadly weapon and illegal possession of a firearm. Davis-Riley was convicted on three charges totaling nine years in prison. Another, Maurice Carter, was found guilty on seven charges, including carrying a gun without a permit and shooting near police officers, landing him at least 10 years in prison. Demarco Gunn, the third man, got the mandatory minimum three years in prison for second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon.
“There are just a lot more guns and punks shooting them — and brazenly so,” said Freeman.
William Ward, the state’s top public defender, said he’s seeing more situations in which clients with drug convictions are arrested with guns or ammo and end up in prison for years.
“I do not believe that there’s an increase in the amount of guns used in the commissions of crimes on the street,” said Ward. “What we’re seeing is an increase in people being charged in possessing weapons with prior felony convictions.”
He also cited a change of culture among judges, who are less willing to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.
Moriarty said defense attorneys in her office are going to trial on more illegal gun possession cases than ever before. In many, the person was prohibited from carrying a gun because of a previous drug-related charge — and not an act of violence, she said. In some cases, three to five years in prison may not be the appropriate course of punishment.
Three years ago, police responded to a gathering in north Minneapolis after someone reported seeing a gun. Between 50 and 100 people scattered when officers arrived, according to court documents. One of the few who didn’t was Marvell Jackson. Police searched Jackson and found a gun, and since Jackson had a fifth-degree drug conviction, a judge in 2015 sentenced him to four years in prison.
“The person actually isn’t doing anything with a gun,” Moriarty said. “In fact, we know that a large percentage of those cases are younger black men who have guns in their car for protection.”