MILLER: D.C. businessman faces two years in jail for unregistered ammunition, brass casing
Mark Witaschek, a successful financial adviser with no criminal record, is facing two years in prison for possession of unregistered ammunition after D.C. police raided his house looking for guns. Mr. Witaschek has never had a firearm in the city, but he is being prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The trial starts on Nov. 4.
The police banged on the front door of Mr. Witaschek's Georgetown home at 8:20 p.m. on July 7, 2012, to execute a search warrant for "firearms and ammunition ... gun cleaning equipment, holsters, bullet holders and ammunition receipts."
Mr. Witaschek's 14-year-old daughter let inside some 30 armed officers in full tactical gear.
D.C. law requires residents to register every firearm with the police, and only registered gun owners can possess ammunition, which includes spent shells and casings. The maximum penalty for violating these laws is a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
Police based their search on a charge made by Mr. Witaschek's estranged wife, who had earlier convinced a court clerk to issue a temporary restraining order against her husband for threatening her with a gun, although a judge later found the charge to be without merit.
After entering the house, the police immediately went upstairs, pointed guns at the heads of Mr. Witaschek and his girlfriend, Bonnie Harris, and demanded they surrender, facedown and be handcuffed.
In recalling what followed, Mr. Witaschek became visibly emotional in describing how the police treated him, Ms. Harris and the four children in the house.
His 16-year-old son was in the shower when the police arrived. "They used a battering ram to bash down the bathroom door and pull him out of the shower, naked," said his father. "The police put all the children together in a room, while we were handcuffed upstairs. I could hear them crying, not knowing what was happening."
Police spokesman Gwendolyn Crump would not provide further information on the events in this case.
The police shut down the streets for blocks and spent more than two hours going over every inch of his house. "They tossed the place," said Mr. Witaschek. He provided photos that he took of his home after the raid to document the damage, which he estimated at $10,000.
The police found no guns in the house, but did write on the warrant that four items were discovered: "One live round of 12-gauge shotgun ammunition," which was an inoperable shell that misfired during a hunt years earlier. Mr. Witaschek had kept it as a souvenir. "One handgun holster" was found, which is perfectly legal.
"One expended round of .270 caliber ammunition," which was a spent brass casing. The police uncovered "one box of Knight bullets for reloading." These are actually not for reloading, but are used in antique-replica, single-shot, muzzle-loading rifles.
This was the second police search of his home. Exactly one month earlier, Mr. Witaschek allowed members of the "Gun Recovery Unit" access to search without a warrant because he thought he had nothing to hide.
After about an hour and a half, the police found one box of Winchester .40 caliber ammunition, one gun-cleaning kit (fully legal) and a Civil War-era Colt antique revolver that Mr. Witaschek kept on his office desk. The police seized the Colt even though antique firearms are legal and do not have to be registered.
Mr. Witaschek is a gun owner and an avid hunter. However, he stores his firearms at the home of his sister, Sylvia Witaschek, in suburban Arlington, Va.
Two weeks after the June raid, D.C. police investigators went to his sister's house — unaccompanied by Virginia police and without a warrant — and asked to "view" the firearms, according to a police report. She refused. The next day, the D.C. police returned to her house with the Arlington County police and served her with a criminal subpoena.
The Office of Attorney General of the District of Columbia Irvin Nathan signed an affidavit on Aug. 21, 2012, in support of a warrant to arrest Mr. Witaschek. A spokesman for Mr. Nathan would not comment on a pending case.
Mr. Witaschek went to the police station on Aug. 24 at 5:30 a.m. to turn himself in, but was not transferred to central booking until 11:30 a.m., at which time he was told it was too late to be arraigned that day. He spent the night in jail and was released the next day at 10 a.m.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier reserves such harsh tactics for ordinary citizens. When NBC News anchor David Gregory violated the gun-registration law last year by wielding an illegal 30-round magazine on live television, he was not arrested.
Mr. Nathan also gave Mr. Gregory a pass, writing that prosecuting him "would not promote public safety."
Mr. Nathan, who is unelected, showed no such leniency to Mr. Witaschek. In September 2012, the attorney general offered Mr. Witaschek a deal to plead guilty to one charge of unlawful possession of ammunition with a penalty of a year of probation, a $500 fine and a contribution to a victims' fund.
Mr. Witaschek turned down the offer. "It's the principle," he told me.
To increase the pressure a year later, Mr. Nathan tacked on an additional charge in August of illegal ammunition from the first, warrantless search. Mr. Witaschek chose to accept the risk of prison time by going to trial instead of pleading guilty.
The firearms laws in places such as the District of Columbia, Chicago, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey do nothing to reduce violence, but merely infringe on the Second Amendment rights of the law-abiding.
However, if these laws are going to be enforced, the police and government must treat everyone equally.
The charges against Mr. Witaschek should be dropped.