A three-time convicted drug dealer who was caught walking around a public park carrying a loaded 12-gauge shotgun in October 2004 told a federal judge yesterday he had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, at the wrong place.

"I ask myself every day, did you need to be around that crowd," Byron Chamberlain told U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter before he was sentenced on a firearms charge.

He will now have a lot more time to reflect on his choice of friends after Pratter sentenced him to a mandatory minimum 15 years in federal prison.

Chamberlain, 33, the father of a 10-year-old boy, was found guilty last June after a three-day trial on a charge of being a convicted felon with a gun.

He got a mandatory minimum sentence because the crime involved a gun and he qualified as an armed career criminal for having been convicted in the early 1990s of three "serious drug offenses."

Chamberlain's attorney, Catherine C. Henry, said there was some ambiguity as to whether one of Chamberlain's drug convictions was really a "serious drug offense," as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act.

She said the court record wasn't clear as to whether Chamberlain pleaded guilty in 1994 to marijuana trafficking or cocaine trafficking on a 1993 state charge. Marijuana trafficking does not count as a serious drug offense under the career criminal law.

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Vicki Markovitz argued that all three of Chamberlain's drug convictions were for serious drug offenses. The judge agreed.

Had Henry won her argument, Chamberlain would not have qualified as an armed career criminal and would have faced a guideline-range sentence of 77-96 months.

Chamberlain lowered his head and began to quietly sob once he realized his fate was sealed.

Henry said she will appeal both conviction and sentence.

Pratter said Chamberlain was remorseful and respectful of the court but that didn't allay the seriousness of his crime.

"There is so much havoc and heartache firearms bring in our communities," she said, and citizens have a "higher obligation" not to make gun violence worse than it is.

Chamberlain was sentenced to from three to seven years on the state drug charges in 1994. After he was released in 2001, by his own account, he held a number of jobs and stayed out of trouble.

Then he fell in with the wrong crowd again, he said. He was arrested by cops in October 2004 after a tipster told police a man was walking in and out of Vernon Park on Germantown Avenue carrying a shotgun.

Cops found Chamberlain carrying an old 12-gauge shotgun - with no serial number and loaded with two 12-gauge shells. He was walking with three other males.

Court papers said Chamberlain told cops he had taken the shotgun off a guy in the park who he said was trying to rob him. *