Evidence in DC Gun Investigations

DC has a long history of being one of the strictest cities in the country regarding gun licensing and gun registration. For a while, DC was unique in the United States for having a complete ban on private ownership of all firearms. Over the years, the courts have chipped away at DC’s catchall gun ban with the courts granting private individuals the right to keep registered firearms in their home or place of business and, much more recently, requiring DC to develop a licensing system to allow people to obtain permits to possess firearms.

While these changes mean there may be a possibility that DC gun laws will become more relaxed over the next several years, it also means that DC prosecutors are pushing forward very aggressively to charge people with the illegal possession of firearms and conduct investigations involving guns in DC. With this in mind, the following is information on the various types of evidence that law enforcement will look to gather during an investigation and how it may be used in court.

Types of Evidence

Along with the seizure of the weapons themselves, police also collect any ammunition found near the weapons and often make attempts to gain evidence that can solidly connect the gun to the person they believe was in possession of that gun. That can include trying to lift fingerprints off both guns and ammunition; and can include attempts to take DNA evidence from guns, ammunition, or magazines. Police try to use fingerprints or DNA evidence to compare against DNA or fingerprints of the person they arrested to try to connect the two. It’s important that a person has a lawyer who understands fingerprint and DNA evidence. Having that kind of lawyer can help a person understand how solid fingerprint and DNA evidence is and whether there may be any challenges to those types of evidence in their case.

How Evidence is Gathered

When police seize weapons, magazines, or ammunition in a gun investigation, they can attempt to lift fingerprints or get DNA evidence from the items that were seized. Although because having the fingerprints or DNA from just the weapons or ammunition doesn’t help the police very much, law enforcement will attempt to get similar evidence from the person they arrested, in order to compare the two.

Whenever a person is arrested, they are automatically asked to provide a fingerprint. The person doesn’t have the right to refuse to provide the police officers with the fingerprint when they are booked for their charge. DNA samples are different. In order to get a DNA sample from a defendant, the police are required to obtain a search warrant. Even if a person has already been arrested, the police must ask a judge to grant them a search warrant to obtain a DNA sample from a defendant. Typically, in most cases such as this, it is relatively easy for the police to be able to get a search warrant to obtain a DNA sample from a defendant. Nonetheless, it is not something the police can simply take from a defendant without their consent. DNA samples from a defendant are usually taken via a buccal swab, which is a swab of the inside of a defendant’s cheek. If the police obtain a search warrant for this, a person cannot decline to provide such a swab.

Challenging Evidence

In order to counter charges of gun possession in DC, it is important for an attorney to properly interpret the evidence that is discovered in an investigation. Knowing what constitutes possession, and what evidence will be used to prove that, helps a defense attorney represent their client.

An attorney will first focus on what physical evidence prosecutors try to use to connect the accused to a weapon. Does the prosecutor have fingerprints they can say prove conclusively that the client was in possession of that firearm? Does the prosecutor have DNA evidence that proves their allegation conclusively? If they don’t, the attorney will look to other evidence the prosecutor might have proving that the defendant was in possession of the weapon. Was the weapon found actually on that individual or was it simply found near them? Was the weapon found in close proximity to a number of other people who could have also been in possession of that weapon? What evidence do the prosecutors have that the individual even knew the location of the weapon.

Gun Possession

In gun cases with no DNA or no fingerprints linking a weapon to a person, prosecutors attempt to use the circumstances of the situation to prove that a person had knowledge of the weapon’s presence and had possession of that weapon. Possession could be actual possession of the gun, meaning the gun was on a person’s body, or constructive possession, meaning the person had the intent and ability to exert physical control over the weapon. Being in the same location as a weapon does not necessarily mean the person was in possession of that weapon. Even knowing the weapon is there doesn’t necessarily mean the person who was arrested had intent to control that weapon.

A lawyer will look to what evidence the prosecutors might have that their knew that at that time they were arrested, they were actually in possession of that firearm. This comes up frequently in situations where clients who have weapons that are validly licensed and registered in other states may not realize that their weapon was in their car, or in their luggage, or otherwise in their possession when they came into the District. These types of strategies can help challenge the prosecutor’s evidence and can help a defense attorney resolve cases in favorable ways for their clients.

Fingerprint and DNA Evidence

There are areas to challenge the claims of the government investigation that a person knew of the location of the weapon and intended to possess and control it. In situations where the police and prosecutors have DNA or fingerprint evidence, it is important for a lawyer to look very closely at that evidence to see if there is a possibility the evidence was collected improperly, or if the evidence doesn’t connect the weapons to a single person.

Fingerprint evidence is not solid science. A DNA analyst may say there is a high degree of probability that DNA found on the weapon is connected to the person who was arrested. It is up to a diligent and careful defense attorney to challenge whether that high degree of probability means there is no reason to doubt a person possessed the gun as opposed to some other individual. Finding proper challenges to DNA evidence or finding uncertainty in the reliability of fingerprint analysis are very important defense strategies for a person to consider when deciding how to move forward in their case.