Prosecutor: No charges for lawmaker who brought gun to airport

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The second-ranking Republican in the Michigan House will not face criminal charges for attempting to bring an unregistered, loaded handgun through security at a northern Michigan airport in July.

The state law that refers to the presence of guns in an airport is not current with federal statute as to where in the airport that prohibition extends and is therefore “unenforceable,” Emmet County Prosecutor James Linderman said in a statement Monday.

Rep. Lee Chatfield, the House speaker pro tempore, apologized for the incident last week and said he made an “inexcusable mistake” when he accidentally left a handgun in a bag that he attempted to carry through security. He believed all of his firearms were registered, but officials found the pistol was not “on file.” Chatfield said he later registered the gun.

Though law enforcement would not refer to Chatfield by name, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman said officers at Pellston Regional Airport found a loaded .38 caliber firearm in the carry-on luggage of a passenger traveling to Detroit at about 3 p.m. July 15.

Officers contacted local law enforcement, took possession of the weapon and interviewed the passenger.

State law prohibits carrying a firearm into a “sterile area” of the airport and refers to a federal law defining that area, Linderman said. But the federal code that once defined “sterile area” has since been amended to delete that definition.

“As a result, the prosecution of Mr. Chatfield under MCL 259.80f is not possible,” Linderman said. “Our legislature needs to address this by adding a definition within our own statutes.”

The fact that Chatfield’s handgun was unregistered would merit a civil infraction under state law, Linderman said. TSA also could impose a fine of up to $9,800.

Chatfield apologized again Monday and said he plans to receive and pay his fine from TSA in full.

“I’m sorry for my irresponsible mistake and for causing any distraction to the people of Northern Michigan,” Chatfield said in a statement. “Whether an elected official or not, nobody is above the law, and Prosecutor Linderman treated this case no differently than he has others in the past dealing with the Pellston Regional Airport.”

Linderman’s statement was released a day ahead of the primary election, where Chatfield will face Pellston Republican Bruce Newville Jr. Should Republicans maintain control of the House in November, Chatfield is expected to be the chamber's next speaker. 

Campaign finance records indicate Linderman contributed to the Lee Chatfield for State Representative committee in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 for a total of $625. 

Linderman told The Detroit News that he has contributed to the campaigns of other candidates. Campaign finance reports indicate Linderman or his wife made contributions to Dick DeVos for Governor in 2006, Michael Jay Duggan for State Rep in 2006, Friends of Jason Allen in 2008, Pete Hoekstra for Governor in 2009, Howard Walker for State Senate in 2010, Frank Foster for House in 2010 and Wayne Schmidt for State Senate in 2014.

"The fact I have made contributions to candidates has no significance as regards my position on charging Chatfield with any crime since I attempted to charge another individual with possession of a firearm in the sterile area of an airport approximately one year ago and had to dismiss the case after discovering the definition defect in the applicable statute," Linderman said in an email. 

If someone without Chatfield's political connections found themselves in a similar situation, "there would be hell to pay," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. 

“No one should be above the law and as a consistent campaign donor to Rep. Chatfield, clearly the prosecutor has some bias in this case," Scott said. "This incident should be investigated by someone who hasn’t donated to Chatfield’s campaigns.”

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