Facing a non-violent offense, one convicted felon gives up his guns

Gun shows are popular in Florida, but a convicted felon -- even one with a non-violent offense -- can't go near them. (Photo by Dave Raith).

ORLANDO — When Mark Schmidter got put in the Orange County Jail on a contempt of court charge, one of the first things he did was arrange to get rid of the guns he owns at his home.
“I already had them taken out of my house,” Schmidter said. “I’m not taking a chance on them.”
The reason he got rid of the guns wasn’t a fear that someone might break into his home and steal his firearms while he was in jail, then use them in the commission of a crime. Schmidter was worried that if he got out jail — and he was released on bail at 9:30 Friday night — he could end up back in state or federal prison if he ever gets caught owning those guns.
Schmidter was arrested on June 29 in front of the Orange County Courthouse, and charged with violating a judge’s administrative order not to distribute political flyers to prospective jurors on the grounds that it could amount to jury tampering. Schmidter did it anyway, got arrested, and was charged with “indirect criminal contempt” — a form of contempt of court. What he didn’t realize at the time was that this charge isn’t a misdemeanor, but a third degree felony.
And having been found guilty by Judge Belvin Perry of the charge, and sentenced to five months in county jail, Schmidter is now a convicted felon. Upon release from jail, convicted felons lose several civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, hold an occupational license, serve in the military — and own any firearms.
Schmidter said he was aware of the law, which is why he arranged to have the guns removed from his home before he got released on bail pending his appeal of the conviction.
Schmidter said he doesn’t particularly care about losing his right to own the firearms, which he said were a gift given to him in lieu of payment for some work done, and which he didn’t used to begin with.
“I never go shoot on the range or go hunting,” he said. “I’m not like that.”
What does bother him is that he had a non-violent offense — handing out flyers informing jurors of their right to jury nullification — that left him forever branded as a convicted felon. The fact that he was simply exercising his right to political free speech, he said, landed him in this dilemma.
“I’m a political prisoner, that’s what I am,” he said.
A felony conviction strips individuals of certain civil rights, including the right to purchase or own a firearm. The law dates back to the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed by Congress in the same year that U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
If the felon’s conviction came under a state court, that person can ask to have their civil rights restored at the state level, although if the conviction involves certain violent crimes, it can’t be adjudicated by the state. If it involves a non-violent offense, the right to own a firearm could be restored. Convicted felons are also not allowed to take gun safety courses.
Florida is one of several states that have a waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored. The state’s former governor, Charlie Crist, had instituted new rules in 2007 that allowed non-violent offenders to apply for the automatic restoration of their civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentence. But earlier this year, non-violent offenders got handed a longer waiting period after Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, voted to require nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 defines a prohibited person as one who has been convicted or is under indictment for a term exceeding one year, so it’s not clear if the full prohibitions would apply to Schmidter with his sentence of 151 days in jail.
Schmidter said if it does apply to him, it could be a major risk to him in the future — but not simply because he can’t keep his firearms. He noted that he could be driving in a car with someone who keeps a gun in the vehicle. If they got stopped and law enforcement found the weapon, Schmidter could be charged for that.
“I know people who carry guns under their seats, and I don’t even know it’s there,” he said.
Local law enforcement continues to take seriously the issue of felons owning guns. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is trying to crack down on them by working with Heartland Crimestoppers, Inc., on a program that rewards anonymous callers who alert law enforcement to anyone with an illegally possessed firearm. Citizens are encouraged to turn in felons with guns by calling Heartland Crimestoppers at 800-226-TIPS (8477).
The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is taking a different approach, hosting a Gas for Guns program on Friday, Aug. 19 at Iglesia Cristo Misionera El Tabernaculo Church in Kissimmee. The program encourages citizens to bring in unwanted guns, which the sheriff’s office believes can help reduce the chance of guns falling into the wrong hands. In return, those who trade in their guns get a $50 gas cards.
“The goal is to encourage citizens to turn in unwanted firearms to remove them from our community,” said Osceola Sheriff Bob Hansell.
The church is at 2490 Boggy Creek Road in Kissimmee, and Gas for Guns will be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This event is completely anonymous, and no questions will be asked of anyone who shows up, including whether they’re a convicted felon.
All firearms brought to the event should be in a plastic bag, unloaded and safely secured, the sheriff’s office noted.
In previous years, the Sheriff’s Office has collected more than 336 weapons from programs like this one.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

From no-kill shelter to state prison, dogs are given a remarkable second chance.

Izzy is a one-year-old dog trained by inmates at the New River O-Unit state prison in Raiford, who is looking for a home.

RAIFORD — Izzy is still searching for a home, but so far hasn’t found one. She just spent two months in prison, and now needs a place to live.
Major Kim Carman, the chief of security at the New River O-Unit state prison in Raiford, thinks Izzy has proven she deserves to be taken in by a loving family.
“She is just a love bug,” Carman said.
Izzy isn’t a recently released inmate, but a dog taken from the Humane Society of Northeast Florida Inc., a no-kill shelter in Putnam County. She was sent to New River O-Unit, a part of the Florida state prison system that’s utilized as a work camp, housing minimum and medium custody inmates. Izzy was sent there as part of the ADAPT Inmate Dog Training Program, which stands for Adoptable Dogs After Prisoner Training.
Izzy is one of several dogs that lived at the prison for a few months, getting trained by inmates housed there to be more comfortable around people.
“Izzy is the last remaining dog in this class who has not been spoken for,” Carman said. “The other four have prospective adoptive families waiting to get them.”
Carman said she hopes a family discovers Izzy, because “She is the sweetest dog. They said when they brought her to us, ‘She’s never met a stranger.’ Well, now she wants everybody to pet her. She thinks we were all put here to pet her and hang out with her. She’s got a great personality.”
Many of the dogs placed in this program are featured on the Florida Department of Corrections’ web site, at http://www.dc.state.fl.us. Once a state prison like New River O-Unit takes on the ADAPT program, the inmates chosen to participate in it are schooled by a professional dog trainer. Then the dogs were taught how to sit, stay,and walk to the left behind their owner. They’re also housebroken and crate trained.
“It’s run entirely by the institution,” said Gretl Pressinger, public information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections.
“It really has worked out to be a win-win situation,” Carman said. “The dogs benefit from the attention they get and the training, and it makes them better suited for when they do get adopted. It gets them out of a shelter and adopted.
“As far as the inmate goes,” she added, “they don’t often get to have that kind of interaction where they get to pet the dog and just chill and be yourself. Dogs don’t judge.”
At the same time, Carman said, the inmates learn a trade that could help them find gainful employment in animal services once they complete their prison sentence.
“This is a work camp,” Carman said. “We have 500 inmates here, but there are only 15 involved in the program. We have 65 inmates in the dorm, and in that entire dorm (participating in ADAPT), I don’t think we’ve had a single case of disciplinary issues since this program started. In prison, you’re not going to get unconditional love from another inmate or staff, and maybe not even from your family, so when they get to pet these dogs and all that stuff, it kind of brings their stress level down and they behave better and it works out great for us. It kind of is a calming effect. And this gives those inmates some kind of work inside the gate where they’re learning something.”
New River O-Unit first took on the ADAPT program several months ago, after contacting the Putnam County Humane Society to provide them with the dogs needing to be trained.
“I said it would be a great idea, and they’ve been absolutely wonderful about taking care of everything, and of course they have a contract with us where they provide all the food for the dogs, so they have been outstanding,” Carman said. “This is our very first class, so it’s only been here for a couple of months. We’re pretty excited to finally be getting through it. We’re getting through all the questions and issues and we finally got all the kinks worked out. This one really turned out as well as we could hope for.”
It starts with the inmates getting the training on how to work with the dogs.
“It’s basically just obedience-type training, to make the dogs more adoptable,” Carman said. “A lot of them, if they stay at the shelter for a long time, they are not used to people and may have bad habits or are afraid of people. They bring the dogs to us and they stay right in the dormitory with the inmates, and they get housebroken, and each day, Monday through Friday, the inmates work with the dog, teaching them how to walk on a lease, sit, stay down — that type of thing, so the dogs will be more likely to stick with it and if they get adopted, the family finds this is not a problem child.”
All of the dogs are at least a year old, and the classes last eight weeks. The inmates who work with the dogs end up training other inmates on how to participate in this program.
“It teaches them who has got leadership abilities,” Carman said. “The inmates learn things about themselves. They learn a lot of life skills about how to interact with other people in a positive way. It’s incredible. We have one guy in particular, and he was very withdrawn and introverted. He’s very shy and we were a little surprised he signed up for the program. Since he got started, he has really come out of his shell in learning how to interact with other people. He’s been the most remarkable change we’ve seen.”
To adopt an ADAPT graduate, contact the Humane Society of Northeast Florida at 386-325-1587 or visit their website at www.hsnefl.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

From the Orange County Jail, political protestor Mark Schmidter says he plans to fight for free speech issues on appeal.

Libertarian activist Mark Schmidter, seen here in January handing out political flyers to prospective jurors at the Orange County Courthouse, is now in Orange County jail for doing it. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – When the chief judge of the Orange County Courthouse issued an administrative order banning people from distributing flyers to prospective jurors, Mark Schmidter responded, and stopped doing it.
“I didn’t want to get arrested,” he said, then added, “like I did now.”
Wearing a dark blue jail jumpsuit, and with an inmate identification badge clipped to his shirt, Schmidter has spent four days in the place he never quite expected to end up – the Orange County jail. Even so, he still believes – passionately – in the cause he’s been promoting, perhaps even more so now.
“To me, this is a real big First Amendment issue,” he said. “Forget about me, I’m just a vehicle. This is very big.”
He got released around 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Schmidter, 64, is an Orlando roofing contractor who got involved in libertarian political causes last year, and developed an interest in jury nullification. As a firm believer that the United States has far too many victimless laws, he began distributing flyers to prospective jurors in front of the Orange County Courthouse, urging them to consider voting to acquit a defendant if they disagreed with the law that person was being charged with.
Then on June 29, he got arrested for doing it – right at the height of the media frenzy over the high profile Casey Anthony trial. The previous January, the chief judge of the courthouse, Belvin Perry – who was also the presiding judge in the Anthony trial – issued an administrative order banning anyone from giving information to jurors, which the judge called a form of jury tampering. Schmidter got arrested on June 29 for violating the judge’s order, and also for distributing the flyers outside of a “free speech zone” the judge had set up in front of the courthouse for protestors during the Anthony trial.
On Tuesday, Schmidter had his trial before the judge, and was convicted of contempt of court – a third degree felony. He was sentenced to five months in jail.
Schmidter said he had gone to court on Tuesday expecting the judge to find him guilty, but not to get jail time.
“I was stunned,” he said. “I was ready to fall over. I had no idea it was criminal or that it would be that length of time. I was wondering if the judge would give me some time to get my affairs in order, but nope, they handcuffed me right there and brought me down here.”
He was placed in protective custody.
When Schmidter agreed to an interview with Freeline Media on Friday afternoon, he was hours away from being released. On Friday morning, Schmidter and his attorney, Adam Sudbury, went back in front of Judge Perry to ask for bail pending an appeal of his conviction. Perry granted him $500 on each count, or $1,000 bail. Schmidter said he expected to post the $100 bond and get released later in the day.
But he still remains surprised at how stiff his sentence was for handing out political flyers to people walking into the courthouse.
“We went to court knowing that the judge was going to find me guilty, but he almost has to,” Schmidter said, since Perry had issued the administrative order to begin with.
“But we thought he could find me guilty of a misdemeanor,” he said. “On the face of this, everybody is saying this doesn’t make any sense.”
Schmidter noted that when the judge issued his administrative order on Jan. 31, he stopped handing out the flyers in Orange County, and went to Seminole County Court in Sanford instead. But gradually he came back to Orange County, started handing out flyers on the street near the courthouse, and then in the walkway leading to the courthouse steps that jurors typically use when they get called for duty. Although he was given copies of the administrative order several times by sheriff’s deputies, he never got arrested – until June 29.
Schmidter says he thinks his arrest had something to do with the Casey Anthony trial – since the judge was presiding over that case and under the public microscope, that may have convinced Perry to finally enforce his administrative order, Schmidter said.
And he never thought he would be restricted to the free speech zone.
“I thought that was for the Casey Anthony folks,” he said.
At a hearing a few weeks before his trial, Schmidter said he asked the judge to recuse himself, and the judge refused.
“Then I said I wanted a trial by jury,” Schmidter said. “He said ‘Denied.’ I was stunned by that. “
At his trial on Tuesday, Schmidter said he had planned to argue that his free speech rights had been violated, that the administrative order violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the jury nullification flyers did not discuss any specific cases the jurors might hear. He quickly learned otherwise.
“We couldn’t argue First Amendment rights much,” Schmidter said. “You could only argue whether the indirect civil contempt charge applied to you.”
Schmidter plans to appeal his conviction, even though if he loses, he’s back in jail to serve out the remainder of his five month sentence. Schmidter said he briefly thought about serving the sentence and getting it over with, then decided there were important issues he wanted to raise on appeal.
“When it comes to free speech, there are so many questions that arise from this,” he said. “If I lose these appeals — and they could take a while – I had to swear I would come back and do the time. I thought about doing it now, but then I said nope. I want this to stay in the news.”
After his bond was posted and Schmidter got released from the jail, he sent out an email to friends and supporters that said “Thanks, everyone for your support! We must appeal. The appeal will cost $5,000. If I – we — lose, 150 days in jail days for me! But more important than I, we all lose our First Amendment rights. I am just the vehicle to freedom. You are the fuel.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...