SALEM — A Salem man was sentenced to 18 months in jail Thursday after pleading guilty to illegal possession of a handgun.
But the judge who sentenced Shawn Spaneas opted to dismiss two other charges concerning that gun, as a result of a recent Appeals Court decision in a similar case in Worcester.
That decision involved the case of a man stopped by police in Worcester who was found to have an unlicensed, loaded handgun in his car — similar facts to the Spaneas case.
The issue in the Worcester case: Did prosecutors have to prove — in order to seek a charge of carrying a loaded firearm — that the defendant knew the gun was loaded at the time?
The Appeals Court decided in March that they did, and overturned the conviction on that charge.
On Thursday, Spaneas' lawyer Leslie Salter argued that the Appeals Court's decision in the Worcester case also applied to her client.
But the decision was not a published one, meaning it is not something that creates a precedent. Prosecutors in Worcester County are seeking to appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court, a process that could take another couple of years.
The charge of carrying a loaded firearm is considered an "enhancement" to the main charge of carrying a handgun without a firearms identification card, an enhancement that would create an additional penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of both.
That means if Spaneas was convicted of both carrying a firearm and carrying a loaded firearm, he would have received two sentences.
Spaneas, 24, who is listed as homeless, was arrested last Sept. 30 after a traffic stop for a broken light on his car. He had no license, so he was arrested on that charge. While preparing to have the car towed, police noticed a silver gun barrel sticking up out of the pocket on the back of the front passenger seat.
They also found a small amount of cocaine and what later turned out to be fentanyl in the car.
The judge on Thursday had a couple of options. The judge could have waited for a final decision from the SJC.
Or, he could accept a guilty plea to the single charge of carrying the handgun, without ammunition, and the defendant's request for the minimum mandatory term.
While he decided to go along with the latter option and accept the plea, Salem District Court Judge Robert Brennan was scratching his head.
"I don't get the decision," said the judge, who noted that he's presided over many prior gun cases.
The Appeals Court decision acknowledged that "proving knowledge that a firearm was loaded will often be quite difficult," and that the effect of their ruling will likely be that few people will be convicted under that section of the law.
But the judges concluded that because the SJC ruled in an earlier case that prosecutors must prove someone knew they were in possession of ammunition, they must also prove someone knew if that ammunition happened to be inside of a gun.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.