Thursday, July 26, 2007

Witnesses back look-alike gun (airsoft gun) felony law

Should pointing a bb gun at a police officer be a crime?

That was the issue discussed Tuesday afternoon at a public hearing at Blackhawk Technical College on a Wisconsin Senate bill that would make it a felony to point a facsimile weapon at a police officer.

Members of the Wisconsin Senate Judiciary and Corrections Committee held the public hearings concerning Senate Bill 43, which was introduced by State Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit.

“The men and women who protect our streets often only have a split second to observe and react when they are approached by an individual armed with a firearm or what appears to be a firearm. Anyone who points a real or fake firearm at an officer impedes law enforcement, endangers public safety and should be held accountable for these actions,” Robson said.

Robson mentioned the Janesville Police Department has seen an increase in the number of facsimile guns surfacing. In recent months, the Beloit Police Department also has had several reports involving facsimile weapons.

“This is happening a lot,” she said. “Apparently, it's a big problem, bigger than I realized.”

An example of a facsimile weapon is a bb gun or an Airsoft gun. People only have to be 18 years of age or older to purchase these weapons. These weapons are required to have an orange tip, but the tips could easily be altered.

The bill was born when Beloit Police Chief Sam Lathrop went to legislators in February 2006 after the Rock County District Attorney's Office did not file charges against a man who pointed a weapon at an officer during a routine traffic stop.

Just before midnight on Dec. 28, 2005, a Beloit Police Officer Andre Sayles stopped Reginald L. Curtis, 32, of Beloit, for a traffic violation, but when he approached the car Curtis allegedly pointed a gun at him. The officer believed the gun to be real so he shot at the car. The car fled the scene, but a crash left Curtis to flee on foot.

“Fake weapons could look real and real weapons could be made to look fake. It's dangerous environment for our officers out there,” Lathrop told the committee Tuesday. “We need to remove hurdles and roadblocks facing our prosecutors so that the people who choose to behave in this fashion are held accountable for their actions.”

“The guardians of our society are the first ones to place themselves in harm's way on our behalf and they do so every single day,” he added.

On Jan. 4, 2005, Curtis turned himself in and was charged the next day with attempting to flee or elude an officer as repeater, obstructing as a repeater and misdemeanor bail jumping as a repeater.

“It's hard enough at midnight to tell what weapon is real, what weapon is fake,” Sayles told the committee. “And I believe that my life and the other officers' lives are worth more than nine months in prison or jail if somebody was to shoot and kill myself or any of my other brothers and sisters.”

The district attorney's office did not charge Curtis because a weapon was never recovered and the assumption could be made that the weapon was not real.

“Both the chief and I had fairly lengthy discussions on the case and what can and cannot be done in this type of situation and putting it mildly we were both frustrated about what we couldn't do on the serious nature of this case,” said Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary.

On Oct. 10, Curtis was sentenced to six years in prison followed by three years supervision after a plea of no contest.

Currently, pointing something at an officer perceived to be a weapon is a Class C forfeiture, with a penalty of up to $500. O'Leary told the committee he also has the option of charging someone with disorderly conduct with the use of a dangerous weapon, a misdemeanor.

Committee members raised questions about the penalties being to high if pointing a facsimile at an officer becomes a felony.

During his testimony, O'Leary explained, having this piece of legislation in his arsenal would help because it would give the district attorney's office more options when dealing with cases involving facsimile weapons. Right now, he can only charge someone with a forfeiture or a misdemeanor.

O'Leary explained he would like the pointing of something at an officer to be handled similar to how armed robberies are treated. If a victim perceived the attacker as having a weapon when demanding his or her belongings, the suspect is charged with armed robbery, even if a weapon was never recovered.

“In the training that law enforcement officers receive on use of force when deadly force is threatened against a police officer, there is only one response the officer has left,” O'Leary said.

State Sen. Mary Lazich, R-28, asked O'Leary of the charging options he has when it comes to dealing a 17-year-old person who has never gotten into trouble, but made the stupid mistake of pointing a facsimile weapon at an officer. Would that teen have to go through the rest of his life with a felony attached to his name? she asked.

“The system is designed to handle each case uniquely based on the person appearing in court,” O'Leary explained.

The teen may be put through deferred prosecution, he said, which means he may need to prove he can stay out of trouble for a certain period of time and the charge would either be dropped or reduced.

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