Thursday, March 18, 2010

Owner of Sporting Goods Store Must Forfeit Firearms Following Conviction for Being a Drug User in Possession of Firearms

United States v. Cheeseman, No. 09-1756, 2010 WL 699550 (3d Cir. Mar 2, 2010). The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s forfeiture of some 600 firearms, potentially valued at $500,000, in connection with the defendant’s conviction for being a drug user in possession of firearms in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3).

The defendant, Cheeseman, was the owner and proprietor of a sporting goods store that maintained an inventory of approximately 600 firearms. Cheeseman developed an addiction to crack cocaine and eventually moved from his home into the warehouse of the store. The district court found that Cheeseman and other addicts used crack on the premises. Additionally, Cheeseman denied being a drug user on his renewal application for his federal firearms dealer license. Cheeseman eventually pleaded guilty to possession of firearms and ammunition by an unlawful user or addict of a controlled substance. The district court ordered the forfeiture of the firearms, which Cheeseman claimed to be valued at $500,000, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(d)(1). Cheeseman raised two arguments on appeal, viz., that the forfeiture was improper because the property was neither "involved in" nor "used in" a knowing violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) and that forfeiture violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Both arguments were rejected by the Third Circuit.

The Court of Appeals noted that 18 U.S.C. § 924(d)(1) would permit only forfeiture of firearms that were "involved in" nor "used in" Cheeseman’s offense. The Court held that because "mere possession" does not constitute use, the firearms were not "used in" the offense. The Court further held, however, that "the term's plain meaning leads to the conclusion that the seized firearms … were "involved in" the offense to which Cheeseman pled guilty because the firearms served as the foundation of his criminality and conviction. Indeed, without the firearms, there would have been no crime." The Court explained:
possession of firearms and ammunition is sufficient for a district court to find that the property was "involved in" a § 922(g)(3) offense. This interpretation of "involved in" makes sense in light of Congress' intent to keep firearms out of the possession of drug abusers, a dangerous class of individuals, and supports a finding that the seized firearms and ammunition were "involved in" Cheeseman's § 922(g)(3) offense. This conclusion is bolstered by the District Court's findings that: (1) Cheeseman had unfettered access to the full panoply of weapons located in [the store]; (2) he used crack cocaine in and around those weapons; and (3) he brought other drug abusers to the store and warehouse to smoke crack.

The Court also rejected Cheeseman’s argument the forfeiture constituted an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment because "the forfeiture of Cheeseman's firearms and ammunition was not grossly disproportionate to his 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) offense because he was abusing drugs while illegally possessing firearms, he was part of the class of persons whose behavior the statute criminalized, and the value of the firearms was at most two times the maximum penalty imposed by the statute."

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