Appeals Court overturns UNC gun possession conviction

NC Court Of Appeals Building Sign Source: Jacob Emmons, Carolina Journal

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  • The North Carolina Court of Appeals has thrown out the conviction of a homeless man charged with bringing guns to the University of North Carolina campus in 2021 when he sought medical treatment at UNC Hospitals.
  • The three-judge appellate panel agreed that the state law banning guns on educational property was unconstitutional as applied to the facts of Joseph John Radomski III's case.
  • Appellate judges split on whether the state provided enough evidence that Radomski knew he was on educational property when he parked his car to seek medical treatment. He stored six guns in that car.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has thrown out the conviction of a homeless man who kept guns in his car while seeking kidney treatment at UNC Hospitals in 2021. Appellate judges agreed the state law used to convict Joseph John Radomski III unconstitutionally restricted his Second Amendment rights.

“When the application of a statute impedes conduct protected by the plain text of the Second Amendment, it is presumptively unconstitutional,” wrote Judge Hunter Murphy. “To overcome this presumption, the State must demonstrate that its regulation is consistent with, or analogous to, this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

“The State failed to demonstrate that regulating Defendant’s possession of firearms, which were kept within a vehicle that was parked in the university hospital parking lot where Defendant was seeking emergency medical care, is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Murphy added.

While homeless, Radomski kept all his possessions in his vehicle. Among those possessions were six guns stored in the vehicle’s back cargo area.

He parked in a university lot near a campus health building while seeking treatment in June 2021. Hospital officials contacted UNC police about a suspicious vehicle. During an investigation, a campus police officer talked to Radomski and learned about the guns.

The officer charged Radomski with possession of a firearm on educational property. A jury convicted him of the crime in September 2022. A judge suspended Radomski’s sentence of five to 15 months in prison and placed him on a year of supervised probation. Radomski appealed.

“We hold that the application of N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b) to Defendant’s case, where Defendant’s vehicle was parked in a parking lot of the university hospital where he sought treatment and his firearms remained within the vehicle, is unconstitutional,” Murphy wrote.

The state argued  that “’laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools’ are constitutional,” Murphy wrote. “However, Defendant argues, and we agree, that the purpose of the ‘open-air parking lot situated between the emergency room entrance, a football arena, and another healthcare building’ is not educational in nature; rather, its function is to provide ‘parking access to the health care facilities in the area, including the hospital where [Defendant] was trying to be seen for significant kidney health concerns.’”

“Therefore, we disregard the State’s argument that N.C.G.S. § 14-269.2(b), as applied to the facts of Defendant’s case, merely forbids the carrying of firearms in an ‘obvious, undisputed, and uncontroversial’ ‘gun-free [school] zone.’” The judge added.

All three members of the Appeals Court panel agreed that the state law was unconstitutional as applied to Radomski’s case. But the panel split on a separate issue. Radomski argued that the state failed to show that he knew he had parked his car on educational property.

Murphy and Judge Jeff Carpenter agreed with the defendant. “The State failed to present any evidence, direct or circumstantial, as to which path Defendant took, what signs he saw, or any other indication of personal knowledge that he was on educational property,” Murphy wrote. “The State did not ‘prove by circumstantial evidence’ any fact from which the jury could infer Defendant’s knowledge.”

Chief Judge Chris Dillon disagreed.

“I agree in the majority opinion that the gun possession statute under which Defendant was convicted is unconstitutional as applied to him in this case,” Dillon wrote in a concurring opinion. “The evidence shows that Defendant is homeless; that everything in the world he owns, including his firearm, was in his car; and that he drove his car to UNC Hospital to seek emergency medical attention. There was no evidence that Defendant had the opportunity or means to store his firearm before proceeding to the hospital.”

“I do not agree with the majority’s conclusion that there was insufficient evidence that Defendant knew that he was on educational property,” Dillon added. “Indeed, there was evidence that Defendant would have passed signs indicating that he was on UNC’s campus. He was near Kenan Stadium, where UNC plays its home football games. The officer testified that Defendant told him that he ‘always forgot’ that the hospital was on UNC’s campus, suggesting that he has been there and/or at least was admitting that had known at some point in the past that the hospital was on UNC’s campus. One cannot forget what he did not once know.”