MAYS LANDING, N.J. - A Superior Court judge denied a motion Tuesday to drop charges against a Philadelphia woman who has a Pennsylvania gun permit and was found with a weapon in her car during a traffic stop on the Atlantic City Expressway last fall.
Judge Michael Donio also refused to overturn an Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office decision that denied Shaneen Allen, who has no previous criminal record, the opportunity to enter New Jersey's pretrial intervention program, which would have allowed her to avoid jail time.
Allen, 27, a phlebotomist with two young children, will go to trial Oct. 6. She had rejected a plea deal under which she would have served 3½ years in prison for bringing the weapon into New Jersey. Strict gun laws in the Garden State do not recognize permits to carry firearms issued by other states.
Allen, who fought back tears in the courtroom, said after the proceeding, "They just threw out the fact that I was being honest and honestly answered the police officer about having a gun. I don't understand it."
Allen said she had purchased the gun because she felt unsafe in her South Philadelphia neighborhood after being robbed and beaten last year.
Representing Allen is Evan Nappen, a New Jersey attorney who specializes in cases involving gun law. Nappen said the plea bargain offered by the Prosecutor's Office was no deal - it is already the minimum sentence the judge could impose if Allen is found guilty on the charges.
Allen admitted at the time that she was unaware of the law that made it illegal for her to bring the firearm, a .38-caliber Bersa Thunder handgun, into the state. The gun has two safety locks and a trigger lock.
"She really has nothing to lose by going to trial at this point," said Nappen after the hearing.
Allen was on her way to Atlantic City for her son's birthday party, and was stopped by a state trooper on the expressway about 1 a.m. for a routine traffic violation. Allen voluntarily handed over the loaded firearm, which was in her purse, during the stop. She had earlier given the officer her Pennsylvania gun permit when she showed her driver's license.
"This is someone who should not be turned into a felon and sent to state prison and have her destroyed because she made a mistake and committed a victimless crime," Nappen said.
But Assistant Prosecutor Deborah Hay said the Prosecutor's Office had pursued the case as a "deterrent" for similar activity and that the charges were "too serious to warrant divergence" to the intervention program.
Donio denied Nappen's motion to have charges dropped because the car stop had occurred during a 180-day window when the state was conducting a gun amnesty program.
Donio called it a "ridiculous argument" that would have allowed people arrested for having an illegal gun during that period to contend they had a plan to turn over their weapon.
Nappen has also applied for a Graves Act waiver for Allen that will remain pending until after a guilty plea or a jury conviction, Donio said. The law mandates a minimum sentence of 3½ to five years for certain gun crimes.
Upon delivering his ruling, Donio said that in Atlantic City, the Prosecutor's Office has broader range over pretrial intervention decisions than the court.
Three years ago a local defense attorney called for an inquiry into how similar gun cases are handled. Donio said he opened up files on waiver decisions to ensure there had been uniform application of the law.
The inquiry found that former Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel had more liberally allowed diversions in gun cases. A 2012 memorandum noted that Atlantic County is a unique region because tourists who legally own guns often arrive in the state not realizing their permits do not allow them to cross state lines.
Current Prosecutor Jim McClain, a former police detective, has said that the Legislature could have included such gun violations as an exemption if lawmakers had chosen to, but they did not.
"It is not this prosecutor or that prosecutor, but the Prosecutor's Office that must remain consistent," Donio said.