Furious About Ferguson? Work to Free Shaneen Allen

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Whatever we eventually learn about what happened in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, Michael Brown is beyond mortal help. The same is not true of Shaneen Allen, a 27-year-old working mother of two and robbery victim who faces an eleven-year prison term for the supposed offense of carrying a legally licensed firearm.

Like the late Mr. Brown, Allen – a resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — is an African-American. She has no criminal record, and her case is untainted by allegations that she had committed a violent crime.

In planning to take the case to trial this October, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain is committing what could be construed as a race-specific violation of due process by seeking prison time: As we will shortly see, a white Pennsylvania resident who committed the same “offense” was given a pre-indictment plea deal involving two years of non-supervised probation. McClain’s proposed “deal” for Allen would have included a mandatory three and a half year prison sentence.

Allen, a medical professional who works two jobs, was victimized by a series of robberies. A concerned relative advised Allen to get a gun to protect herself and her two young children. She purchased a gun, completed a firearms  safety course, and obtained official permission from the State of Pennsylvania to exercise her innate right to self-defense. However, she made the mistake of crossing the Delaware River into a different tax jurisdiction called New Jersey, where the ruling political clique is stingier in granting that supposed privilege, and refuses to recognize firearms licenses that are issued by their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

After being stopped by a revenue farmer for violating one of New Jersey’s myriad official restrictions on the right to travel, Allen made the tragic mistake of being entirely candid when asked if she had any weapons in her possession. Rather than being handed an extortion note (more commonly called a “traffic ticket”), she was abducted and charged the second-degree felony of “unlawful possession” of the means of self-defense.

The officer who carried out that abduction told the victim that she was being punished for her honesty. The same admission was made by the judge at her arraignment. Despite the fact that she clearly displayed no criminal intent, DA McClain refused to offer her entry into a diversionary program that would allow her to avoid prison.

McClain, it should be noted, is no stranger to clemency: He found it in what passes for his heart to allow NFL star Ray Rice, who was also accused of a felony, to enter the diversion program, thereby avoiding prison or even significant professional inconvenience.

Granted, Rice’s alleged offense was nothing as serious as carrying a licensed firearm: He committed the relatively venial infraction of beating a woman into unconsciousness in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

Mercy is a gift reserved for the wealthy and powerful, which means that prison is for single black working mothers trying to protect their families, rather than millionaire celebrity entertainers who beat black women to a bloody pulp. 

McClain, and his allies in the civilian disarmament lobby, might try to pretend that violating New Jersey’s incomparably wise and inspired firearms laws is an offense of such transcendent magnitude that the guilty simply must spend time in prison, even when those violations are committed by otherwise innocent people from out of state.

Assuming that this is the case, why is Shaneen Allen headed for prison, while her fellow Pennsylvania resident Todd Doering was allowed to go home on probation?

During a visit to New Jersey’s Logan Township in July 2010, Todd and his brother had the misfortune of attracting the attention of a group of plainclothes officers involved in a “Cops in Shops” sting operation at a convenience store.

The purpose of that operation – other than to give the largely idle police force in that tiny town something to do — was to harvest revenue by cracking down on underage drinking and violations of the city’s open container ordinance. One of the officers spotted Todd’s brother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, crack open a can of Twisted Tea.

“Without telling us what was happening, one of these guys reached into my car and grabbed my brother,” Todd related to Pro Libertate. “Within a few seconds there were police on both sides of my car. It was like they thought I had murdered somebody.”

As Shaneen Allen would do later, when the intruders demanded identification from Todd he informed them that he was carrying a licensed handgun – in his case, a Glock model 22. “The weapon was immediately secured for officer safety,” relates the police report. “Todd Doering was then removed from the vehicle and secure with handcuffs” – that is, he was kidnapped and shackled. His abductors “did note that when securing Todd Doering’s drivers [sic] license from his wallet … a Pennsylvania license to carry firearms.”

While in handcuffs and awaiting transport to jail, Todd “spontaneously uttered that the magazine for the weapon was in the glove box and that he believed that as long as the weapon and the ammunition were kept separate he could legally carry the gun.”

By volunteering that information, Todd merely allowed his captors to multiply their excuses for imprisoning him: He was charged with both “possession of a handgun without a permit” and “possession of hollow nose bullets” in the separate magazine.

Todd’s brother was cited for having an “open container of alcohol” and released. A short time later, Todd related to me, the charge against his brother was dismissed “because of a lack of probable cause.” This should have meant the collateral dismissal of Todd’s felony firearms charges. However, by that time he had been blackmailed into accepting a plea agreement – albeit for a deal much better than the one that would later be extended to Shaneen Allen.

In October 2010, the Gloucester County DA offered Todd two years of non-reporting probation and relatively modest fines, including a $25 monthly fee he paid for the privilege of reporting to a probation officer.

It bears repeating that DA McClain wouldn’t so much as entertain the possibility of granting probation to Shaneen Allen.

“For most of 2011, the probation officer would visit me here, and he made it clear it was just a formality,” Todd recounted to me from his home in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. “He finally said, `Look, you don’t belong on probation; this shouldn’t have been done to you.’” In March 2012 Todd was granted early discharge from probation. But he remains unjustly tainted as a convicted felon.

“My attorney and I have filled out all the paperwork to request a pardon, which includes ten letters of endorsement and recommendation,” he explains. “It’s been sitting on Governor Christie’s desk.”

Currently working as a welder and recently married, Todd’s employment circumstances are stable. This is fortunate, given that his felony conviction – although patently unjust – would make it exceptionally difficult to find another good job, even if the ravaged economy were producing them. Until and unless he receives a pardon, Todd cannot legally own firearms, either for recreation or self-defense.

“My family spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up, and now I can’t even own a shotgun,” he laments. “I’m not permitted to buy any kind of firearm, or be in possession of one – despite the fact that I followed all of the rules and never did anything to harm anybody else.”

Todd is commendably outraged over the treatment inflicted on Shaneen Allen, and concerned about the prospect of her going to prison – leaving her kids without their mother.

“I’ve been trying to contact her attorney, and tell him about my case, which has to be considered a precedent,” Todd explained to me. “My attorney advised me not to go to the media, but what is being done to that poor lady is unconscionable. I’m trying to undo the damage that was done to me, but at least I’m not spending years in prison. They want to take this woman away from her children for doing something that no reasonable person would consider a crime.”

“When law and morality contradict each other,” wrote Frederic Bastiat, “the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.” Shaneen Allen has never broken the law in any sense; the edict that she ignorantly violated has no moral validity. Her case offers infuriating, albeit redundant, proof of the maxim that the only thing governments “make” are criminals out of innocent people, and corpses out of living human beings.

Since the eruption of Ferguson, Missouri, it has become commonplace for people to say that the revelation of the contemporary police state in all its malignant glory has wrought a measure of redemption out of the violent death of Michael Brown. While not minimizing in any way the necessity of learning why Brown was killed, those who are consumed with a laudable zeal for justice should direct at least some of their energy into the effort to prevent the unwarranted imprisonment of Shaneen Allen.

A legal defense fund has been established on behalf of Shaneen Allen. 

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