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Justices decline challenge to Md. law against gun possession by prohibited persons

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a man who was unaware that a nearly 20-year-old simple assault conviction in Pennsylvania barred him from possessing a firearm in Maryland, leading to his felony conviction for gun possession by a prohibited person.

Without comment, the justices let stand a Maryland high court decision that a defendant’s knowledge of being a prohibited person is not an element of the state’s illegal gun possession law.

In his ill-fated appeal, Mashour Howling argued through counsel that knowledge of wrongdoing is an essential element of felonious crimes.

This need to know is rooted in the common law and due regard — or “comity” — for another state’s finding, in this case Pennsylvania’s, that an offense such as simple assault is not serious enough to disqualify someone from possessing a gun there, attorney Michael A. Wein wrote in Howling’s unsuccessful petition for Supreme Court review.

Howling’s misdemeanor conviction for simple assault resulted in a sentence of probation in Pennsylvania, a minor offense that two decades later gave Howling no reason to believe he was barred from possessing a gun in Maryland under the state’s Public Safety Article § 5-133, added Wein, a Greenbelt solo practitioner.

“Criminal defendants throughout the United States, per the appellate determination below in Maryland, are not even allowed to present testimony on how they may have reasonably relied upon their home state’s legal determination, as qualified to own a regulated firearm,” Wein wrote.

“Based on the Maryland Court of Appeals’ decision, guilty mind ‘mens rea’ (knowledge) does not apply and therefore not relevant to the jury….,” Wein added. “Any factual circumstances against a guilty mind ‘mens rea,’ which would reasonably defeat criminal guilt as an element, are simply defeated by formulaic application of Maryland’s law.”

If upheld by the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals decision “would commit potentially any and all criminal defendants completely lacking in blame to serve up to 15 years in jail, under Md. Code, Public Safety § 5-133,” Wein wrote.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office waived its right to respond to Howling’s petition for review unless the justices requested a response. The request was never made.

The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Mashour Howling v. Maryland, No. 22-357.

In its decision last April, the Court of Appeals rejected Howling’s argument that Maryland’s law was analogous to a federal statute the 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 Howling’s case because knowledge of being a prohibited person is not an element of the Maryland crime as defined in the 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,” Hotten added. “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.”

Howling was found guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court in 2019 of gun possession by a prohibited person. He was sentenced to a suspended term of nine years in prison and three years’ unsupervised probation.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction last year, prompting Howling to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Mashour Howling v. State of Maryland, No. 35, September Term 2021.