Yesterday was a big day for Carlo Bellario. He’s a New Jersey actor/comedian who’s facing the possibility of a ten-year prison sentence for running afoul of Jersey’s gun laws. Of course, the charges involve a toy. Specifically, an airsoft gun that can be bought in just about any sporting goods store in Jersey. The law that has gotten Carlo in trouble is the Graves Act. It goes back to 1981 and was intended to set mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with a firearm. Later, the law was amended to include gang activity and today the interpretation from prosecutors includes the act of simple possession.
The law also upgrades the offense of knowingly possessing any handgun without first having obtained a permit to carry as provided in N.J.S.A. 2C:58-4 to a crime of the second degree. However, the law provides that if the handgun is in the nature of an air gun, spring gun or pistol or other weapon of a similar nature that ejects a bullet or missile smaller than three-eighths of an inch in diameter with sufficient force to injure a person, the offense is a crime of the third degree.
Carlo was on the set of an independent movie playing the role of a drug dealer’s body guard. As he recounts the story, he was handed the airsoft handgun, which certainly looked real enough for the purposes of the movie, and they shot a car chase scene in a Jersey neighborhood. Problem was, the movie producers did not have the proper permits to shoot a movie in the Woodbridge neighborhood they chose for a location. Neighbors see a group of guys, one who appears armed, and they call the cops. Cops come and arrest Carlo who has the airsoft pellet gun tucked in his waistband. He’s charged with a serious crime that could carry up to a ten-year sentence.
Carlo is a man who is putting his life back together, he’s been convicted of crimes in the past and actually served two separate six-month sentences. Now he’s got a girlfriend and two step kids that he’s partially responsible for. No violence in his past, no drugs, just a guy trying to break into the movie business and put food on the table from regular stand up comedy gigs.
Yesterday the prosecutor offered a deal. Three years in prison to avoid a trial. If convicted at trial he could face ten years or more. The prior convictions certainly don’t help. He refused to take the deal. Instead he’s gonna fight.
Considering the world we live in today, with murders, rapes, robberies, gangs, drugs and terrorism, you’d think that prosecutors would have more important things to focus on other than a struggling actor using a toy as a prop while filming a movie.
Why have lawmakers ignored the fact that New Jersey’s strict gun laws include firearms classification for a spring loaded plastic gun that shoots plastic pellets? Why is the state focused on mandatory minimum sentences when no crime other than ‘possession’ under the Graves Act is committed. Isn’t the law supposed to help make our communities safer? Get gangs off the streets? How does sending a comedian to prison for an extended time solve the crime problem? Pre-trial intervention (PTI) is not an option because of Carlo’s prior convictions. How about a little prosecutorial discretion?
Remember when the Atlantic County prosecutor offered NFL star Ray Rice PTI to avoid jail for punching out his wife-to-be in an elevator? Then that same prosecutor turned around and charged Shaneen Allen and would’ve sent the single mother to prison if not for Governor Christie issuing a pardon.
This case shouldn’t come down to a pardon. The legislature needs to act and act swiftly. The good news is that Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, Republican leader Jon Bramnick and Senator Ray Lesniak have already moved forward to take up the issue in the legislature. This is a start for a long-term fix. But for now, the Governor needs to get on the phone with the prosecutor and stop the prosecution of a man using a toy in a movie. The Governor was quick to dismiss the prosecutor in Somerset County when a host of politically connected insiders objected to the decision to declare a murder suicide in the case of a prominent New Jersey couple.
He’s got the power. Does he have the political will and courage to act here?
In the meantime, help Carlo out by donating to his legal defense.