Rolling the Dice on New Jersey’s Voluntary Surrender Law

Gun Rights

New Jersey is one of only eight states that continue to ban the possession of firearm silencers or suppressors (these remain regulated under federal law, which defines suppressors as “firearms” under the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act).

New Jersey law defines “prohibited weapons and devices” to include “firearm silencers,” and any person who knowingly has one in his or her possession is guilty of a crime. A separate law, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-12, directs that “[n]o person shall be convicted of an offense” based on their unlawful possession of a silencer if, before any law enforcement investigation is commenced or charges are brought, the silencer is voluntarily surrendered to the local police chief or state police superintendent. The section advises that it does not grant “immunity from prosecution for any crime or offense except” for the unlawful possession of the devices surrendered.

According to news reports, New Jersey resident Matthew Moran placed two orders for automotive “fuel filters” in response to an ad on Instagram. After the first package of two arrived, Moran thought they looked like silencers and took them to a friend at an auto parts shop. He was told the items were not fuel filters and that he should dispose of them.

As allowed by the state law, Moran voluntarily surrendered the first shipment to his local police department and told the detective that the second shipment, which had yet to arrive, was being cancelled.  He “notified the China-based Instagram vendor, PayPal, and his bank to cancel the second order and payment,” and alerted the U.S. Postal Service that he was refusing delivery of any shipment from that vendor. When the second order was delivered to his home despite his instructions and precautions, Moran “immediately” transported it to the police to voluntarily surrender the package. He was arrested on his way into the building.

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In a press release regarding the arrest and charges, Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella   announced that “an international arms-trafficking investigation” had identified Moran as a “person of interest” because “illegal silencers were purchased by [him] from a company based in China and smuggled though the mail to his residence.” A search warrant executed at Moran’s home resulted in the seizure of firearms, magazines, ammunition and ballistic vests, none of which appear to have resulted in charges. The only charges listed are four counts of possession of a silencer in violation of state law.

New Jersey law defines a “firearm silencer” as any instrument or appliance “for causing the firing of any gun, revolver, pistol or other firearm to be silent, or intended to lessen or muffle the noise of the firing” of any firearm, but it isn’t clear whether the devices delivered to Moran are actually silencers or even operable as such. In addition, if Moran’s shipments of two items each are the only ones involved, the charges appear to include the first set that was voluntarily surrendered and presumably covered by the statutory immunity from prosecution.

Ads for these kinds of “fuel filters” are ubiquitous. Well-meaning citizens could assume that this widespread availability means the devices are lawful or have been cleared for sale. In the case of an honest mistake, such individuals may believe they can rely on the immunity that New Jersey holds out as an inducement to come forward and surrender items that are of questionable legality.

Moran’s case suggests that the process is much more of a gamble.

Moran’s attorney, Evan Nappen, summarizes the situation by describing his client, a licensed gun owner with no prior criminal convictions, as one who initiated the contact with law enforcement, voluntarily surrendered the initial order, was forthright and truthful about the second shipment, and did everything he could to cancel the outstanding order and stop delivery. Regardless, Moran was arrested, his home was searched and his property seized, and he has been labeled as an international arms trafficker. The case, of course, remains pending and the claims against Moran are simply allegations.         

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