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Reason
Reason
Joe Lancaster

Florida Man Sentenced to 4 Years in Federal Prison After Shooting Down a Drone

In July 2021, Florida deputies arrested a man for shooting down their drone. Last week, a judge sentenced him to four years in federal prison, but not for destruction of property: He was sentenced merely for possession of a firearm as a felon.

According to a criminal complaint filed by an agent with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, deputies with the Lake County Sheriff's Office responded to reports of a possible burglary at a large commercial property in Mount Dora, Florida. Upon arrival, they found a front entry gate that had been "damaged by impact," as well as "unsecured doors on some of the buildings at the facility."

Thinking there could still be intruders present on the 10-acre site, deputies flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over the property to check it out. As it flew, however, they heard two gunshots ring out and saw the drone "slowly spinning downward and emitting smoke" before it "crashed onto the metal roof of an outbuilding, became suspended on a rain gutter, and caught fire."

Deputies investigated the source of the gunshots and encountered Wendell Goney, who lived nearby. Goney first denied shooting the drone but admitted to it after learning the craft was equipped with cameras. Goney claimed this was the first time he had ever shot at a drone, but he told deputies that he had been "harassed" by people flying them over his property. He said he had bought a .22 caliber rifle to put a stop to it and hadn't known that this particular drone belonged to law enforcement.

When deputies asked, Goney admitted that he was a convicted felon and therefore ineligible to own a firearm under federal law. They arrested Goney, who gave them permission to search his house and told them exactly where to find the rifle.

The criminal complaint noted that Goney "has approximately 23 prior felony convictions. He has been sentenced to more than a year in state prison on multiple occasions, including 1997, 2007, 2009, and 2013." His offenses included forgery, burglary, and multiple instances of grand theft, including the theft of a rifle in 1995. Most recently, he was sentenced in 2013 to two years and eight months in prison on charges including simple battery, aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer, and possession of cocaine.

Goney pled guilty in October 2023. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Presnell sentenced Goney to four years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release during which he would have to participate in both drug and mental health treatment programs. He would also be required to pay more than $29,000 in restitution to the Lake County Sheriff's Office to replace the drone.

While Goney was initially charged with both destruction of law enforcement property and possession of a firearm, prosecutors dropped the former charge in exchange for his plea. Noting in their sentencing memo that federal guidelines "call for a recommended sentencing range of between 77–96 months," prosecutors asked for "a sentence at the low end of the applicable sentencing guidelines—77 months." The memo noted that "such a sentence would be slightly more than twice the length of the longest of the prison sentences the defendant has served to date."

But is that a just sentence? Goney's previous longest sentence was two years and eight months for crimes involving assaulting other people, including police; in this case, on the other hand, Goney's only aggressive act was toward an unmanned flying drone, and his only charged offense was possessing a gun without the government's permission.

While it seems sensible to bar felons from owning guns—especially those with such unsavory records as Goney's—the act presents uncomfortable questions of both liberty and constitutionality.

For one, the federal ban on firearm ownership necessarily sweeps up people who have committed nonviolent offenses, even those not involving firearms. In 1995, Bryan Range fraudulently obtained $2,458 in welfare benefits; when caught, Range repaid the money, paid a small fine, and served three years of probation. But under federal law, Range also lost the right to own a firearm as a result of his state misdemeanor conviction. In June 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that Range's ban violated the Second Amendment's guarantee of a right to keep and bear arms.

Unlike Range, Goney's prior convictions did involve the use of violence. But who is supposed to be protected by keeping Goney from owning a firearm? At the time of his arrest, Goney had not been in trouble with the law for several years, and his only act of aggression was aimed at a drone he thought was "harassing" him.

The original criminal complaint notes that Goney is a felon and "has never had his civil rights restored by executive clemency following these felony convictions." Indeed, the only way for Goney to legally regain his Second Amendment right to own a firearm is through a pardon by the governor.

People convicted of crimes—even felonies, even those involving violence—do not cease to be citizens, or human beings, as a result of their sentences. Once their sentences have been served, they should have the ability to regain the rights they've lost—including the rights to vote, to hold public office, and to serve on juries. The right to bear arms is just as essential.

The post Florida Man Sentenced to 4 Years in Federal Prison After Shooting Down a Drone appeared first on Reason.com.

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