For gun offenders, police want sentences to send tough message

Gun offender
Jiyaad Copeland, 19, was sentenced to 3 years, 4 months in the Lino Lakes prison after he shot at someone and was arrested for possession of a firearm.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

One night last March, Jiyaad Copeland was hanging out with some buddies at a friend's house. Before heading out to cruise around north Minneapolis, Copeland smoked some weed and grabbed a .44-caliber Magnum revolver -- a gun like the one made famous by Clint Eastwood's movie character, Dirty Harry.

"I was like, well, I can't go over north without a gun. I get shaky," Copeland said. "So, before we left that mutual friend's house I asked one of my guys, 'Where your gun at? Let me hold it.'"

What happened next led him to Lino Lakes prison.

REFLECTING IN PRISON

During an interview, Copeland sits, unshackled, in a prison conference room. The 19-year-old inmate wears prison issue blue pants and a long-sleeved thermal undershirt.

Several rows of braided hair lay close to his scalp. He has a hint of facial hair over his upper lip.

.44-caliber Magnum Interarms revolver
The .44-caliber Magnum Interarms revolver Jiyaad Copeland used is in the Minneapolis Police Department's gun vault.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Copeland said he took the .44 Magnum handgun with him on that night for protection. As he and his buddies pulled into a gas station on West Broadway Avenue, Copeland saw some people he didn't get along with. They exchanged words. Then, he said, one of the guys came after him.

"I assume it was a gun he had. I'm not sure," he said. "I assume it was a gun because it was shiny. And I don't think he would be running across the street if — you know. And I pulled my gun out."

Copeland fired and missed. He also missed seeing a Minneapolis police officer patrolling nearby in his squad car. The officer wrote in his report that he was close enough to see Copeland fire the gun. After the shooting, Copeland and his friends drove away, but the officer stopped them and found the revolver next to Copeland on the seat of the car.

Copeland pleaded guilty to being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, a felony. He received a 40-month sentence.

A "prohibited person" is someone who meets one of many restrictions set by federal and state law. Copeland, like a majority of people who ended up in court in Minneapolis gun cases last year, was forbidden to carry a gun because of prior criminal activity.

GROWING UP IN STREET VIOLENCE

Copeland's path to prison began at an early age.

He was raised by a single mother who warned him to stay out of trouble. She told him Copeland's father was killed by street violence and didn't want to see the same thing happen to him. But Copeland didn't listen.

"I'm young, not thinking. She just nagging. It's the usual," he said. "I'm used to this. And I went out and did everything she told me not to do. And this is the results I got."

"I went out and did everything [my mom] told me not to do."

At 15, Copeland pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree burglary and received four years probation. But Copeland continued to act out. He repeatedly got into fights and was kicked out of several Minneapolis high schools. Copeland said he didn't sell drugs, but made money by shooting dice. He also said he had friends who were in a gang. That also meant he made enemies in rival gangs.

When Copeland was 18, somebody shot him as he was walking home from school.

"All I heard was a gunshot," he said. "I felt a jerk and I fell. I got up thinking I was all right, until I touched my back and I felt the hole."

The bullet passed right through his belly and exited out his back.

Copeland's body healed relatively quickly, but the shooting left him frightened and vigilant.

"After that, I felt, it's either I'm a get somebody before they get me," he said. "At that moment I started carrying guns."

Copeland said it wasn't hard for him to get a gun. He always knew a go-to guy in the neighborhood who could get one in a couple of days or a few weeks. Usually a pistol cost about $300.

He knew others, mostly younger guys, would steal guns from houses.

POLICE PATROLS

The Minneapolis police officer who arrested Copeland last March was performing what is called a directed patrol. Minneapolis police officers routinely conduct such patrols in areas where gang and gun violence is most prevalent, to make traffic stops and check on frequent offenders who haven't visited probation officers. They often find guns.

During one such patrol last fall in north Minneapolis, Lt. Bret Lindback stopped to watch a traffic stop on James Avenue.

Lieutenant Bret Lindback
In this file photo, Lt. Bret Lindback patrols the streets of north Minneapolis on September 20, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"They stopped this car and found a gun," Lindback said.

The officers who stopped the vehicle told Lindback one of the passengers told them there was a loaded, short-nosed revolver in a backpack in the trunk.

"This is one of the 300-plus handguns we've recovered so far this year," he said.

By the end of 2010, police had recovered 424 guns from the north side -- a majority of the 759 firearms recovered across the city in 2010.

The man arrested during the directed patrol is 19-year-old Davon Dent. He was later convicted of being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, and sentenced to five years probation and several months in the Hennepin County workhouse.

PROHIBITED PERSONS

MPR's investigation of violent gun crimes in Minneapolis in 2010 found that most of the people who either pleaded to or were convicted of violent gun offenses were not legally allowed to possess a firearm.

Last April, a man with five prior felony convictions — including attempted murder — punched and raped a woman at gunpoint. He's now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

That same month, a convicted felon got into a gun fight near a school bus. A bullet grazed the bus driver, and a 9-year-old boy on the bus was scratched by flying glass. The shooter got five years in prison.

Not all gun crimes are committed by felons. One man accidentally shot his girlfriend in the head as he twirled his gun around his finger while sitting in his Dodge Durango. Her injury was not life threatening. The man was sentenced to four years probation and two months in the workhouse.

Despite such incidents, 2010 was not an unusually violent year in Minneapolis. While homicides doubled from 2009 to 2010, the number of aggravated assaults, which include shootings, declined by 7 percent. So far, 2011 is following the same trend.

An unregistered gun
During a traffic stop in north Minneapolis in September 2010, police find a gun.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Violent crime in Minneapolis is at its lowest level since the early 1960s, Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen said.

In part, he said, that's due to an aggressive policing strategy adopted a decade ago. Officers search for illegal guns even when the suspected crime is a minor one.

"The way we prevent serious crimes, typically, is to make arrests for minor crimes," Allen said. "And in the process of making an arrest for a minor crime, you may discover a gun."

Typically, the guns are confiscated and destroyed. Nearly all gun offenders spend time in jail or the workhouse. The most serious offenders go to prison.

But once they get back on the streets, many offenders just find another gun.

Allen said he and other law enforcement officials have asked Hennepin County judges to give gun offenders the toughest allowable sentences.

"If people are carrying guns, they are far more likely to either perpetrate or be the victims of a gun-related crime," he said. "So, let's make sure that doesn't happen by really sending a message as to how bad an idea it is to carry a gun illegally in the city."

TOUGHER SENTENCES

Police officials meet regularly with state and federal prosecutors to compare notes on gun cases. Allen said they want to find which court will give them the best chance to obtain a lengthy sentence that could deter others from committing gun crimes.

The most punitive gun sentences are handed down in federal court. Under a program called Project Exile Minneapolis, accused gun offenders who qualify as "armed career criminals" face minimum sentences of 15 years in federal prison.

Since Project Exile started last summer, the U.S. Attorney's office has indicted 18 men; three have been convicted.

However, the majority of gun cases are handled in state court, where Hennepin County judges tend to give longer, not shorter sentences to gun offenders, according to the most recent data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. However, in a little more than a third of cases, judges imposed sentences of time in the workhouse or probation instead of prison.

In 2009, the most recent data available, Hennepin County judges imposed 194 gun-offense sentences.

In 37 percent of those cases, judges imposed prison sentences that were at or above the time set by sentencing guidelines. In 30 percent of cases, judges imposed a shorter prison sentence. In the remaining cases, judges gave sentences that consisted of a combination of time in the workhouse, probation and monitored home release.

When a judge grants a shorter prison sentence, it can mean that the judge found that the crime committed by the defendant didn't quite rise to the level typically seen in other similar cases, Hennepin County Judge Mark Wernick said. Judges also give shorter sentences to offenders who admit to their conduct early, he said.

According to his case records, Copeland, the 19-year-old inmate at Lino Lakes, received a lighter sentence because he admitted to his crime and took responsibility for his actions.

Judge Beryl Nord reduced Copeland's sentence from 60 months to 40 months. In Minnesota, an inmate will serve two-thirds of his sentence in prison, and the remainder outside prison under the supervision of a parole officer. Along with 70 days credit for time served, Copeland will be out of prison next year.

From inside prison walls, Copeland sounds like a guy who's determined to change his life around. But the reality is Copeland will be going back to a community where there are guys with guns who don't like him, and maybe want to kill him.

Copeland insists that when he gets out, he'll try and settle his disputes with words, not with guns.

"I do fear someone might still hold resentments," he said. "Without communication or forgiveness ... there will never be peace."

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