A Philadelphia mother facing prison time for bringing her legally registered gun into New Jersey will be allowed into a diversion program, after the attorney general clarified a directive that had expanded New Jersey's gun law.
Shaneen Allen was arrested last year after a motor vehicle stop on the Atlantic City Expressway in Hamilton Township. She told the state trooper that she had her loaded gun and a concealed carry permit with her.
The single mother of two said she didn't realize that the permit did not cross state lines. New Jersey does not allow the average citizen to have concealed weapons, even if they are legally registered.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain originally denied Allen pretrial intervention because he said a 2008 directive that expanded the state's Graves Act did not allow for an exception.
But the attorney general released a clarification to the state's county prosecutors Wednesday with respect to out-of-state visitors from states where their gun possession would be legal.
"In most of these cases, imprisonment is neither necessary nor appropriate to serve the interests of justice and protect public safety," acting Attorney General John Hoffman wrote.
"In applying the factors set out in the clarification, I determined that the defendant in this case should be offered the opportunity to be admitted into the Atlantic County PTI Program," McClain said. "I have communicated that determination to the court and defense counsel."
McClain previously said he did not allow such exceptions because they were so common that, if it had been the Legislature's intent, that would have been among the written exceptions.
"We're elated," said Evan Nappen, an NRA lawyer defending Allen. "It is honestly the right thing to do.
What makes it very, very special is that Shaneen also got the attorney general to clarify the guidelines so that others similarly situated can also get PTI," he added. "So her battle helped others also, so that's a good thing."
It's a battle Northfield defense attorney Michael Schreiber has been waging for a while. A motion he made before Superior Court Judge Donio got the judge to open up how county prosecutors have treated requests for waivers from prison time in these cases.
In 2008, then-Attorney General Anne Milgram issued the directive expanding the punishment for certain gun cases, and also asked that the waiver letters be kept on file, so that they could be reviewed by the office to make sure the law was being carried out uniformly. But it's unclear whether the office ever looked at those files until this recent case.
Hoffman's clarification sent Wednesday indicates his office began its assessment of these cases Aug. 8 of this year.
That is despite several letters and phone calls Schreiber has made about similar cases.
"At least the result is good," Schreiber said Wednesday. "I welcome the involvement of the Attorney General's Office because, without them, a lot of people would be going to prison unfairly and unjustly."
He said he has a client now serving a sentence in a similar case involving shooting his sawed-off shotgun on his own property in Hammonton.
McClain indicated he will spend the next few weeks reviewing similar pending cases that may now be eligible for PTI under the clarification.
The directive acknowledges that "under current New Jersey law, these otherwise law-abiding persons are subject not only to arrest, prosecution and conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm, but also to enhanced punishment — a mandatory minimum state prison sentence — under the 'Graves Act.'"
Schreiber will also move to have the courts look at similar cases for his other clients that have already gone through the system.
That includes Justin Brey who was arrested April 2013 when he returned to Caesars Atlantic City to retrieve the gun he left in a room there. Brey had the gun with him at work in Pennsylvania, where he had a permit to carry. When his friends took him on a surprise ride to Atlantic City for his bachelor party, he still had it, so he put it in a hotel room drawer, where he forgot it.
Despite a plea agreement for a three-year sentence with parole ineligibility for one year, Judge Donio recently gave Brey two years' probation.
But, if he could now be allowed into PTI, he would not be considered a felon, and would be allowed to vote and return to coaching youth sports, as he has done in the past.
There had been suspicion that some changes were coming to the law, after McClain asked for more time to reconsider the case. An Oct. 6 trial date had been postponed to Oct. 20.
Allen was due in court Thursday for motions in the case and to prepare for trial, but instead will officially apply for PTI, her attorney said.
"She's extremely excited and happy, and her two boys are very happy," Nappen said. "She'll be able to continue being a good mother, and that's where she's at."
Contact Lynda Cohen:
@LyndaCohen on Twitter