COURTS & LEGAL

She lost her gun rights for passing a bad check. Now she wants the Supreme Court to restore them

Dec 29, 2023, 8:31 PM | Updated: 8:31 pm

Mindy Vincent poses for a portrait outside of Let’s Do Something Productions, where she records h...

Mindy Vincent poses for a portrait outside of Let’s Do Something Productions, where she records her podcast, “Therapeutic Madness,” in South Salt Lake on Dec. 17, 2020. Vincent, a recovering drug addict and now a licensed clinical social worker who has turned her life around, is suing the government to restore her right to own a gun, which was revoked after she was convicted of bank fraud for trying to cash a $500 check in 2008. (Deseret News, Kristin Murphy)

(Deseret News, Kristin Murphy)

A Utah woman convicted of a felony for trying to cash a fake check in 2008 has taken her fight to own a gun to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her attorneys filed a petition for review with the high court last week on this question: Whether the Second Amendment allows the federal government to permanently disarm petitioner Melynda Vincent, who has one 15-year-old nonviolent felony conviction for trying to cash a bad check.

“She has no history of violent behavior or other conduct that suggests she could not responsibly possess a firearm for self-defense,” her lawyers wrote. “And for more than 15 years, she has been a law-abiding citizen.”

Vincent, a single mother with two advanced degrees who works as a licensed clinical social worker, wants to buy a gun to protect herself and to go hunting and target shooting with her family. But the conviction for attempting to cash a fraudulent $498.12 check at a Salt Lake grocery store prohibits her from ever possessing a firearm.

“I can’t even be in a car with a bullet,” Vincent told the Deseret News when it first wrote about her case in 2020.

Since 1961, federal law has barred convicted felons from possessing a gun. A person found in violation of the law could be sent to prison.

Turning her life around

Vincent sued the federal government and the state of Utah in 2020 to have her Second Amendment rights restored. (Utah has since changed its law to allow certain felons to possess firearms after seven years of good behavior.)

The law, according to the lawsuit, has offered her neither forgiveness nor redemption, but consigns her to a lifetime as a second-class citizen by permanently stripping her of her Second Amendment rights.

Vincent grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family where there was trauma and abuse. She started injecting and cooking methamphetamine at age 15. Her struggles with addiction and homelessness pushed her into committing crimes. After her arrest in 2007, she entered treatment for her drug and alcohol addiction and graduated from drug court.

In the midst of her recovery, she was convicted in federal court of trying to cash a fake check. Rather than send her to prison, the late U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sentenced her to probation and gave her a second chance.

Vincent made the most of it.

With a new lease on life, she earned a behavioral science degree from Utah Valley University followed by a master’s in social work from the University of Utah. She opened a private practice in therapy and counseling. In 2018, she completed a master’s degree in public administration at the U.

Vincent is the founder and executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that works to develop science-driven drug and criminal justice reform policies. She also started the first legal syringe exchange service in the state.

Petitioning the Supreme Court

A federal judge in Salt Lake City dismissed Vincent’s lawsuit in 2021, reasoning the laws prohibiting felons from possessing a firearm are presumptively valid. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

Vincent’s attorneys, Sam Meziani, Jeremy Delicino and Jeff Green, argue in the Supreme Court petition that the 10th Circuit’s decision violates her Second Amendment rights because historical tradition of firearms regulation does not permit the federal government from disarming someone solely based on a nonviolent felony conviction.

“That is especially true where no evidence suggests that the person poses, or ever has posed, a threat to anyone else,” the lawyers wrote.

In the filing, they contend that the 10th Circuit failed to apply a historical analysis mandated in a 2022 Supreme Court case, New York Pistol & Rifle Association v. Bruen. In that case, the high court held that gun restrictions are constitutional only if they are consistent with the Second Amendment and the nation’s historical tradition of gun regulations.

“As a result, the Tenth Circuit never examined the historical basis (or lack thereof) for disarming people like Ms. Vincent, who never posed a physical danger to others,” the attorneys wrote. Nor did the court require the government to “affirmatively prove that a firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms,” as called for in that analysis.

Meziani said there’s no historical basis for the 1961 law, adding a “modern” felony can be anything now. “It’s our position and we’ve shown that nonviolent felons have never been deprived of firearms until 1961,” he said.

The case, he said, isn’t attempting to upset felon-in-possession laws.

“We’re saying that there is historical tradition to disarm violent offenders, people who threaten public safety but not the whole litany of felonies like Ms. Vincent’s financial offense.”

Recent court decisions on felon-in-possession laws are all over the place, Meziani said.

“It’s just an issue that’s primed for the Supreme Court because there’s really chaos around the country,” he said. “There is zero Supreme Court precedent that says a nonviolent felon cannot possess a firearm. The Supreme Court has not decided that issue.”

The attorneys argue that the Supreme Court needs to address the issue because of a growing split among the appeals courts over the constitutionality of prohibiting people with nonviolent felony convictions from having guns.

Like the 10th Circuit, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Missouri held that the gun ban applies to all felons. The court concluded that Congress acted within historical tradition when it enacted the prohibition on possession of firearms by felons. A 3rd District Court of Appeals decision in Florida conflicts with those two rulings. That court found it unconstitutional to ban someone convicted of making false statements to obtain food stamps from possessing a gun.

“I think our case is the best vehicle in the country to decide this issue,” Meziani said.

Should nonviolent felons have guns?

Meziani previously told Deseret News that he can count on one hand the number of clients like Vincent he has had in his legal career. He described her turnaround as rare and remarkable.

“That’s not to say that should be the requirement. You shouldn’t have to go to the great lengths that she’s gone to in order to have your Second Amendment rights restored. But if she can’t get her rights restored, I’m not sure that there’s anyone who could,” he said.

He sees Vincent’s story as one of redemption.

“Mindy Vincent is an amazing woman. She’s changed her life. She poses zero threat to public safety,” Meziani said.

Vincent said once people have served their sentences, that should be the end of it, though she agrees that repeat violent offenders should not have guns. But people shouldn’t have to “grovel and beg forgiveness” to get their rights back. She said she hopes her lawsuit provides a pathway for others in the federal system.

“This is about so much more than me. There are so many people who are just like me who have turned their lives around, they’ve given back to their community, they’re an asset to their community, yet they can’t have their God-given rights as an American,” Vincent said.

Vincent said she owns property and ATVs at Bear Lake and enjoys target shooting with her family on weekends. And as a single mother, “I just want the right to defend my home with a firearm if I so need to.”

One justice’s opinion

Whether the Supreme Court takes Vincent’s case remains to be seen. But the issue is of keen interest to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

In a dissenting opinion in a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals case before she joined the high court, Barrett concluded that only people convicted of dangerous felonies should lose their right to keep and bear arms. She traced the history of the Second Amendment and the punishing of convicted felons to colonial times.

History, she wrote, is consistent with common sense that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns, but that power extends only to people who are dangerous.

“In sum, founding-era legislatures categorically disarmed groups whom they judged to be a threat to the public safety,” Barrett wrote. “But neither the convention proposals nor historical practice supports a legislative power to categorically disarm felons because of their status as felons.”

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She lost her gun rights for passing a bad check. Now she wants the Supreme Court to restore them