Crossing the Line: Knowing State Law

It’s very important to know your state’s laws and the laws of states where you may plan to travel. Never assume that neighboring states have the same laws or that law enforcement is going to let an infraction slide because you were unaware of the law. Recently, a woman from Pennsylvania, with a permit to carry a gun, traveled to New Jersey with a legally owned gun, loaded with hollow point bullets. During a traffic stop, she informed the police officer she had a gun in the car, which is what you should do under normal circumstances. However, New Jersey doesn’t recognize the carry permits of other states. She was arrested, charged with possession of a firearm and faced 3 years in jail. Had she not mentioned the gun, she may have just received a traffic ticket. Not knowing the laws of the state she traveled to, she provided information that caused her arrest. Luckily, due to public outcry and actions by the Acting Attorney General, she was accepted into a pretrial intervention program. Once completed, her criminal record will be cleared. A situation like this could be avoided by knowing the laws of states you visit. This is especially important when you are carrying a firearm or any weapon. In knowing the law, if you realize you are breaking it, you may not want to divulge too much information.

About two months ago I was looking at stun guns on the Amazon app. About an hour after looking at the stun guns I noticed an email from Amazon thanking me for my order.  The problem is, I didn’t order it. I believe one of my kids got to my phone and inadvertently clicked the buy with one-click button since I hadn’t closed the app. It was purchased and it would arrive in two days. I could still cancel it, but I was probably going to buy it anyway so I left it alone. But wait, it’s important to know your state’s laws. The next day I decided to check how my state feels about stun guns and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a felony to knowingly possess one. The thing about felonies, they make you a felon and felons can’t own firearms, plus it’s public record so it will show up in any background check. Not really worth it for a stun gun. Even if no one knows I bought it, I can’t use it. Using it means I have it and having it is a felony. I contacted Amazon immediately and canceled the order and refused delivery the next day.

Knowing the law not only helps to keep you out of trouble, it also helps to keep the government from taking advantage of you. Municipalities with a revenue problem will come up with ways to get your money. The easiest targets are people who don’t know the laws, particularly motorists. We see this with the shortening of the yellow light at intersections with red light cameras. Fighting a red light camera ticket with a shortened yellow light will often result in the ticket being dismissed. Recently, a town in New York was ticketing drivers for speeding in school zones on school days. The problem with this was that schools were closed for summer vacation so they weren’t actually school days. Many drivers paid these tickets, but were eventually given a refund after community outrage and media exposure. Knowing the law allows you to challenge them when they are being applied incorrectly or unfairly.

But knowing and following the law doesn’t guarantee you won’t get into trouble. Texas has a castle doctrine, which means that if an intruder enters your home, you have no duty to retreat. If you have reason to believe the intruder will harm you, you are justified in using deadly force. Many states have similar laws, so check yours and be sure you understand what it means. I mentioned Texas’ castle doctrine because in early 2014, Marvin Louis Guy and his wife woke up at 5:30 a.m. to armed men attempting to enter their home through a window. Guy retrieved his firearm and opened fire, killing one, injuring another and hitting two others who received minor injuries because they were wearing body armor. Those intruders turned out to be police officers serving a “no knock” drug search warrant based on an informant “witnessing” cocaine being transported to the home. The officers didn’t identify themselves when attempting to enter the home, leaving Guy unaware of their identities when he opened fire. No drugs or traces of drug distribution were found, but Guy was arrested and charged with capital murder and attempted capital murder of the police officers. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out.

A mistake people often make is assuming they know what the law says by hearsay. I’ve heard a number of times that New Jersey law requires residents to retreat during a home invasion and only if they’re unable to, that is when they can confront the intruder. This is incorrect as New Jersey has a castle doctrine that states the residents or someone acting to protect the residents in a dwelling have no duty to retreat and can use force or deadly force against an intruder. When we hear many people “quoting” a law, we believe it must be true, but it’s best to read the laws yourself rather than base your knowledge on someone else’s understanding or misunderstanding.

Do you know where to find your state’s laws? Start with the state’s website and look for legislation or statues in the menu. Or google “[your state] laws” and look for the website with “state.[xx].us” (xx is your state’s two letter abbreviation) in the address. From there you get the actually legislation and not someone’s copy or interpretation.

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