Top NC court urged to skip case involving homeless man with guns at UNC

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  • Lawyers representing a homeless man convicted of bringing guns to the University of North Carolina campus in 2021 have urged the state Supreme Court not to take the state's appeal in the case.
  • The state Court of Appeals issued a ruling in May throwing out Joseph John Radomski III's conviction for bringing guns to an educational property. State Justice Department lawyers want to see that decision overturned.
  • Lawyers from the Office of Appellate Defender reject the state's arguments that the case sets a bad precedent.

Lawyers for a homeless man convicted of bringing guns to the University of North Carolina campus when he sought medical treatment at UNC Hospitals in 2021 urge the state Supreme Court to reject the state’s appeal in the case.

The state Court of Appeals ruled in May that a North Carolina law banning guns on educational property was unconstitutional as applied to the facts of Joseph John Radomski III’s case.

State Justice Department lawyers filed a petition in June for North Carolina’s highest court to take the case and overrule the Appeals Court. Lawyers from the Office of the Appellate Defender responded Monday.

“As the State told this Court just over a month ago in another Second Amendment matter, cases raising as-applied challenges ‘are necessarily limited to [the appellant’s] unique circumstances, [and therefore] pose even less of a publicly or legal significant issue’  than facial challenges, the importance of which the State also dismissed in that case,” Radomski’s lawyers wrote. “Here, however, it seems the mere fact of Mr. Radomski’s success has, in the State’s opinion, transformed this limited as-applied Second Amendment challenge into one that is ‘unprecedented.’”

“Despite the State’s claims otherwise, the Court of Appeals’ decision in this case broke no new legal ground: it faithfully followed the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Bruen, this Court’s guidance to decide statutory and constitutional issues narrowly, and our appellate courts’ well-established guidance regarding sufficiency claims that requires the State to present substantial evidence of each element of an alleged crime,” the court filing continued.

“Further, it is mercifully rare that an unhoused person living out of a car containing all his belongings, including weapons inaccessible and buried under his home goods and clothing, is reported to police as suspicious by an unnamed caller while said person is parked in an open air parking lot to seek urgent medical care for serious ongoing medical issues,” Radomski’s lawyers wrote. “Accordingly, this unique set of circumstances is unlikely to repeat itself, let alone become an issue of significant public interest.”

The state Supreme Court already has issued an order temporarily blocking the Appeals Court ruling favoring Radomski.

Now state lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Appeals Court’s decision.

“Like most States, North Carolina prohibits firearms on school property and college campuses,” state lawyers wrote in a June 25 petition. “This commonsense law ensures the safety of students, teachers, and others on campus. At the same time, North Carolina’s school-safety law protects Second Amendment rights.”

“Among the statute’s twenty-two exceptions are provisions allowing individuals with a concealed-carry permit to store handguns securely in vehicles on educational property, or to carry firearms on property that is both educational and a place of worship outside of school hours,” the petition continued. “The statute also provides an affirmative defense to an individual with a concealed-carry permit who removes a secured handgun from a locked vehicle for purposes of self-defense. Thus, the General Assembly has carefully balanced preserving public safety in the most sensitive of places with individual constitutional rights.”

“The Court of Appeals declined to respect that balance,” state lawyers argued. “It held that the Second Amendment requires the State to allow firearms in a parking lot next to a student-health facility, a college football stadium, and an undergraduate dormitory at the center of a public university campus, because the parking lot is also next to a university-run hospital.”

“That ruling undercuts the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding that States may prohibit firearms in sensitive places like schools and colleges. This unprecedented decision hinders the State’s ability to keep its schools safe,” the petition continued.

Justice Department lawyers also challenged the Appeals Court majority’s ruling that the state did not provide enough evidence that Radomski knew he was on an educational property with his guns.

The case stemmed from Radomski’s decision to bring guns with him to the University of North Carolina campus when he sought medical treatment at UNC Hospitals in 2021. Radomski kept the guns in his car.

A three-judge state Appeals Court panel ruled in May that a state law banning guns on educational property was unconstitutional as applied to the facts of Radomski’s case.

“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.”