Defendants can be convicted of gun possession by a prohibited person even if they were unaware they were barred from having the weapon due to a past conviction, Maryland’s top court said Thursday in a unanimous ruling that makes the state’s gun-control law targeted at ex-felons stronger than the federal government’s.
The Court of Appeals rendered its 7-0 decision in upholding the convictions of Mashour Howling and Funiba Abongnelah, who said they could not be found guilty of the crime because they did not know they were prohibited persons.
The high court rejected the men’s argument that Maryland’s law was analogous to the federal statute, which the U.S. Supreme Court has held requires proof that the defendants knew not only that they were in possession of the firearm but that they were barred from possessing it due to their criminal history.
The Court of Appeals said the Supreme Court’s 2019 Rehaif v. United States decision interpreting the federal law – found in U.S. Code Chapter 18 — is irrelevant to the men’s case because knowledge of being a prohibited person is not an element of the Maryland crime as defined in the state’s Public Safety Article.
“Similarity between a Maryland and a federal statute is not sufficient justification for this court to apply a federal court’s interpretation of a federal statute to a Maryland statute,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote for the Court of Appeals. “While the plain text of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) requires knowledge of prohibited status, the plain text of Pub. Safety § 5-133(b) only requires knowledge of the defendant’s possession of a firearm.”
Howling’s attorney, Michael Wein, said that “the facts in my client’s case should concern a lot of people and not just in Maryland.”
Howling’s previous conviction was not for a felony but for simple assault 20 years ago in Pennsylvania. That misdemeanor would not prohibit him from possessing a gun in Pennsylvania but apparently did in Maryland, said Wein, a Greenbelt solo practitioner.
Howling had “no reason to know” he was a prohibited person based on that long-ago minor offense, Wein said. But now he has a “very serious felony conviction,” which the Court of Appeals upheld despite Howling’s lack of knowledge regarding his prohibited status, Wein added.
Abongnelah’s appellate attorney, Anne K. Olesen, did not immediately return a telephone message Friday seeking comment on the court’s decision. Olesen is a clinic professor at George Washington University Law School.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the court’s decision.
Howling and Abongnelah, who did have a felony conviction, were found guilty by Montgomery County Circuit Court juries of gun possession by a prohibited person.
Howling was sentenced to a nine-year suspended prison term and three years of unsupervised probation. Abongnelah was sentenced to eight years in prison, with all but five years suspended due to his earlier felony conviction, and five years of supervised probation.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld their convictions last year, saying that knowledge of being a prohibited person is not an element of the Maryland statute.
The Court of Appeals agreed and distinguished the Maryland law from the federal statute on which it was modeled.
Specifically, the federal law requires the prosecution to prove the defendants knowingly violated the prohibition on gun possession by a prohibited person. The law makes no distinction between knowledge of possession and of being a prohibited person and therefore applies to both elements, the Supreme Court held in Rehaif.
By contrast, Maryland’s Public Safety Article requires the state to prove “’that the defendant knowingly possessed a regulated firearm'” and then only “‘that the defendant was previously convicted of a crime that disqualified (him or her) from possessing a regulated firearm,’” the Court of Appeals stated in quoting from the statute.
“While Pub. Safety § 5-133 fits within a broader statute that shares a legal history with a federal act, nowhere within the specific legislative history of Pub. Safety section 5-133 … did the General Assembly indicate that Maryland courts should look to federal law or federal cases for guidance,” Hotten wrote. “Even if Pub. Safety §5-133 was at one point directly inherited from 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the material differences in the plain language of the statutes necessitate different interpretations.”
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in the consolidated cases Mashour Howling v. State of Maryland and Funiba Abongnelah v. State of Maryland, Nos. 35 and 36, September Term 2021.