Protests and national attention don’t appear to have swayed the Atlantic County prosecutor’s stance on the state’s gun laws.
Two days after a judge sentenced a North Cape May woman to a noncustodial term for a violation involving her legally owned gun, the Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal, saying the sentence was illegal.
Under a plea agreement, Bonnie Oliver Allamong, 52, faced a three-year term with one year of parole ineligibility for taking her legally owned gun to her sister’s home when the other woman called for help during a domestic dispute in January 2013. Allamong didn’t load the gun, but there was a bullet in the chamber that she didn’t know was there, her defense attorney said. She never pointed the gun at anyone, he added.
At her Aug. 19 sentencing, Superior Court Judge Michael Donio granted a waiver from the mandatory sentence, and instead gave Allamong 275 days of day-reporting to the Atlantic County Justice Facility.
That, Assistant Prosecutor John Santoliquido wrote in his appeal, was an error, and the sentence is illegal.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain has come under fire recently after his stance on the state’s gun laws got national attention for a case involving a single mother from Pennsylvania.
Shaneen Allen was pulled over on the Atlantic City Expressway, and told the state trooper she had a loaded gun and a license to carry. That’s when she says she learned the license isn’t valid across state lines.
McClain has rejected motions to allow her into pretrial intervention — which would allow her to complete a program with no jail time — or to offer probation.
He previously told The Press of Atlantic City that these cases are so common, if the Legislature had wanted an exemption for them, it would have been included in the legislation.
During a court hearing last month, Assistant Prosecutor Rick McKelvey said there are four criteria for not allowing PTI in these cases: when the gun is unsecured, if it’s loaded, has hollowpoint bullets or if there’s a bullet in the chamber.
But attorney Michael Schreiber, who represents Allamong, said the prosecutor is spending tax dollars to basically add 90 days to a sentence and put a law-abiding woman in state prison.
“You have a prosecutor who digs his heels in and doesn’t budge,” he said.
Schreiber has been leading a charge against McClain’s handling of these cases, including filing a successful motion to open up all decisions on Graves Act waivers to defense attorneys. Previously, the decisions were to be set aside for potential review by the state Attorney General’s Office to make sure there was consistency in how the cases were handled.
The Attorney General's Office did not provide that information by Tuesday night.
“I cannot fathom why the Attorney General’s Office is not looking at this more carefully,” Schreiber said. “Maybe they are and I just don’t know about it.”
In what appears to be a landmark decision, Donio opened up three years’ of these decisions, going back to the term of previous Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel. Housel often granted PTI or probation in these cases.
Other prosecutors also have been more lenient to those with no criminal record, Schreiber said.
Now, Schreiber also wonders if another sentence in which Donio granted a waiver will be appealed.
In April 2013, Justin Brey was arrested 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, Donio gave Brey two years’ probation.
At the sentencing, Donio criticized the mandatory minimum laws that tie judges’ hands, and asked if New Jersey wants to be known as the “Gotchya state.”
“If you don’t trust the judge enough to make the correct decisions, then don’t appoint them to the bench,” he said.
Judges cannot comment on their decisions to the media. Since the case is pending, Assignment Judge Julio Mendez’s office also declined comment.
“The position of the Prosecutor’s Office is as stated in the filings with the court,” said Jay McKeen, a spokesman for McClain’s office.
It’s a position Schreiber said doesn’t make sense.
“When you look at all the factors, why is he focusing money, time for a prosecutor’s appeal on these people?” he asked. “They certainly aren’t the people committing criminal acts. It’s just a mind-boggling thing to me.”
Contact Lynda Cohen:
@LyndaCohen on Twitter