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Like you and me, only better

Constitutional rights are apparently tricky and complex, if the defendent is a police officer. A while back, I noted a case where some Illinois police officers were charged with illegal possession of machine guns. Here’s the latest:

Charges that an Illinois State Police sergeant illegally possessed a machine gun were dismissed Wednesday by a federal judge, who ruled that the law was “unconstitutionally vague” as applied to him.

In federal court in East St. Louis, U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon dropped the charges against Sgt. James V. Vest of O’Fallon, Ill., who was lead rifle instructor for the department’s District 11 in the Metro East area. Herndon’s 26-page order says the confusion is over the federal law’s exception for police officers, and whether Vest could reasonably be expected to know whether he was breaking the law.

Vest was one of four people, including two other Illinois state troopers, separately accused in January of illegally possessing machine guns. Such fully automatic weapons are banned by federal law except for certain uses, such as by the military and police agencies, or by people with a special license, which the four did not have.

But if this were a civilian, there’d be nothing vague. You’d be in jail for ten years and pay a $250K fine. More:

The case against Vest concerned an M-4 machine gun, essentially a short-barrel form of the standard M-16 military weapon, that he bought in 1998 and used in his state police training classes. The charges allege that he lacked authority from the state to buy or possess the weapon.

Vest argued that he bought and used it under the “law enforcement exception” in the federal law. Some police agencies have machine guns in their arsenals, particularly for their tactical teams.

Herndon noted that the prosecution never claimed that Vest ever used the M-4 for anything but official purposes. The judge said the government argued that a law enforcement agency, not a single police officer, has the authority to permit possession of a machine gun.

But Herndon wrote that the federal law granting that authority was too vague in this instance to support the charges against Vest.

“How would a police officer/lead rifle instructor such as Vest ever know whether his possession of a machine gun or other prohibited weapon was legal, as there is no guidance under the (statute) as to what constitutes proper authority,” the judge wrote. “It does not appear that this statute was designed to criminalize police officers even if they may be guilty of mere technical violations.”

Given that Vest apparently used it only for law enforcement purposes, Herndon said, charging him “seems to go against the purpose” of the federal law.

The law is not vague. There is a legal and lawful manner for police agencies to obtain NFA weapons. And they’re tax exempt.

Some animals are more equal than others.

Update: At subguns, they have more:

Vest, a firearms instructor and former State Police Tactical Response Team or SWAT team leader, is accused of violating a federal law regulating automatic weapons. An indictment states Vest improperly ordered the M-16 in 1998 from a California supplier and then failed to register it with federal authorities. A prosecutor has said Vest used a fake state police letterhead to order the weapon that he paid for with his own money.

So, he forged documents to obtain his illegal weapon. That he bought with his own money.

7 Responses to “Like you and me, only better”

  1. Jay G Says:

    I certainly hope this doesn’t surprise you…

  2. Rustmeister Says:

    Vest could reasonably be expected to know whether he was breaking the law

    A cop unsure of the law? How could that be?

  3. chris Says:

    This is not a surprising for East St. Louis.

    I was born in East St. Louis, and it is comparable to the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan, where UBL is said to reside.

    You have to give a tip of the hat to the judge, though, for extending professional courtesy to the cop.

    I hope that the prosecution appeals.

  4. tgirsch Says:

    I was born in East St. Louis, and it is comparable to the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan, where UBL is said to reside.

    Nope, no hyperbole to see here, people, move it along…

  5. triticale Says:

    To my knowledge, the only case in which a transferrable Class III firearm (e.g. a legal privately owned machine gun; there are something like a quarter million out there) was used to commit a murder, the shooter was a police officer.

  6. Rustmeister Says:

    I served with a guy who lived in Alton. Even then (1982), East St. Louis had a bad reputation.

  7. _Jon Says:

    I just reviewed several cases where a person was convicted even though they had no way to know that they had violated a law. The old tenant of “Ignorance is no excuse for violating the law.” applies here too. He should be in jail.

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