Federal program gets tough on gun laws | NevadaAppeal.com

Federal program gets tough on gun laws

JIM SCRIPPS

A new federal program in Northern Nevada promises to get tough on felons with firearms by moving their prosecutions from local to federal courtrooms.

In the next few weeks, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will implement Project Effect in an effort to boost jail time and minimize early release for felons who violate weapons laws, said ATF spokeswoman Marty McKie.

An agreement with local courts will provide easier movement of suspects from county to federal jurisdiction.

“Federal sentencing guidelines for these crimes is stiffer because of enhancement penalties,” she said. “Sometimes state sentences can’t provide the same level of punishment.”

Enhancement refers to an additional penalty for violating the restrictions of a felon’s probation. Locally, these cases have to be tried separately from additional criminal charges.

Earlier this week, James Amondo Watkins, 22, of Sacramento, was arrested on a district court warrant for the alleged Jan. 9 kidnapping of a Carson City man. Two other men, Sam Grim, 18, of Reno, and Thomas Jefferson, 27, of San Francisco, pleaded guilty to lesser charges Tuesday before Interim Judge John Ray in Carson City Justice Court.

Anticipating the federal arrest, Deputy District Attorney David Morandi dropped local charges against Watkins.

Watkins faces a potential 10-year sentence in federal prison if convicted in U.S. District Court. He is the first person arrested in Carson City to be moved to federal jurisdiction.

Early release is also an issue of consideration in choosing a venue for prosecution, said Carson City Chief Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer. She said state prison allows time reduction of up to one-third of a prisoner’s time, while the maximum a federal prisoner’s time can be reduced is 55 days a year.

Processing suspected weapons violators will also help government efforts to trace guns and investigate “spinoff” cases, McKie said.

“It may be that they are more willing to give information if they have that enhancement penalty hanging over their head,” he said.

McKie said that similar programs, particularly in eastern states, have netted a substantial number of drug-related prosecutions. The program has been in place almost three years.

The Effect (Ex-Felon plus Firearms Equals Conviction Time) program has been in Las Vegas and southern Nevada since March of last year. During that time, more than 100 cases have been opened and 78 alleged weapons violators have been indicted, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Zlotnick.

“We want to get the word out that people shouldn’t be carrying guns if they are criminals,” he said. “The DAs that we work with all have the common goal of getting criminals off the street.”

In metropolitan areas such as Oakland and San Francisco, ATF agents and sheriff’s deputies share office space, working together to expedite prosecutions.

A potential side benefit to this type of prosecution is a reduction in gang activity in the prison system, McKie said.

“A higher percentage of felons with gang affiliation go to a prison that’s not within geographic proximity to where they live,” she said. “If you’re looking at a network of criminals, you have to take people out of that network.”

McKie said ATF agents and officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office will officially kick off the new program with a ceremony slated for the next few weeks.