SK gun enthusiast in 'holding pattern' for court ruling

South Kitsap resident Marcus Carter is spending his Wednesdays waiting by the phone now. That’s the day the result of his recent appearance before the state Supreme Court will be released.

Carter’s appeal hearing Sept. 9 was only the latest in a series of charges, lawsuits and appeals that extend back into 1999, when he was first accused of possessing an illegal automatic weapon. The case that developed between Carter and Kitsap County is as basic as it gets — the county says it was a machine gun and they had the right to seize it; Carter said it wasn’t a machine gun and, no, the county didn’t have the right to take it.

In general, the courts have agreed with Carter. His appearance before the Supreme Court is based on an appeal of a Tacoma Court of Appeals decision filed by the county shortly after the appeals court backed Carter’s claims.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge has said the county doesn’t plan on taking this case any further should Carter win again. So, after spending the last four years immersed in legal jargon, Carter is breathlessly waiting to see whether this will be the last round, or whether he’ll have to start all over again.

“It’s just a matter of waiting to see what they come up with,” he said. “I have no way to gauge this — I’ve never been there before.”

The facts surrounding the case and alleged crime have been a matter for debate ever since the very beginning.

On May 15, 1999, Carter, a near-full-time volunteer at Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club near Seabeck, was teaching a gun instructor certification class to a small group of people. Two of the men in the class were employed as investigators for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.

At one point in the class, each attendee had to demonstrate how to clear a weapon, which included demonstrating the chamber was empty. Bruce Jackson, who at that point was chief criminal investigator for Pierce County, picked up one of the available weapons — an AR-15 competition rifle owned by Carter — and demonstrated how to clear it.

However, Jackson didn’t put it back down. According to the report Jackson filed, he found several parts that didn’t match the factory-issue AR-15s. When he opened up the gun to look inside, he found what he identified as parts from an M-16 military assault rifle — an automatic weapon banned from civilian ownership under state law.

Past that initial recitation of facts, the county’s and Carter’s stories diverge considerably. Carter said the investigator was very rude and insisted Carter relinquish the weapon to him so he could go back to Pierce County and have it tested. The investigator reported Carter got very anxious and tried to destroy or remove the illegal parts inside the weapon.

Eventually, the police got called in and Carter’s weapon was seized.

Ironically, when the case finally went to court it didn’t last long enough and the official reports of the gun’s capacities were never entered as evidence.

The case was thrown out in the early stages on grounds of illegal search. Essentially, the court said the investigators had no right to go poking around inside Carter’s weapon without a warrant or permission from Carter.

“That’s what I wrote in my report, that he started a clandestine investigation without my knowledge,” Carter said. “When he pushed that pin and opened that gun, he went beyond the open-view doctrine.”

“It was more a matter of being rude than anything else,” he added.

When the county appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals in Tacoma, the three-judge panel there agreed with Carter and upheld the Superior Court decision.

The county’s motion for reconsideration failed as well.

The county’s appeal of that ruling is what got the case to the Supreme Court, and the current waiting game.

Carter said he’s aware the Supreme Court can take up to six months to make a decision, so he knows it’s a little premature to be hanging over the phone. However, he said it’s hard not to be a little impatient.

Ever since the initial seizure, Carter hasn’t been able to find a job — not that he’d have time for one with all the legal proceedings. Carter, a professional gunsmith, hopes to go back to that profession when the court issues are wrapped up.

Until then, he’s been keeping busy with the gun club and talking to people who he said have offered words of support for his battle.

Of course, even if the Supreme Court uphold the Court of Appeals, life may not go back to normal right away. Hauge has pledged to retain control of Carter’s weapon, regardless of the court ruling. Carter said he’ll fight tooth and nail to keep that from happening.

“I don’t want a lawsuit,” he said. “I want my gun back and I want to be left alone.”

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