“The waiting’s torture. They basically told me that I’m one step below a murderer in the eyes of the New Jersey Court. I could go to jail for over five years, state prison, not see my daughter, not see my husband.”
This is Mia Higginbotham. She has lived in Florida for 14 years, but recently she decided to retrieve her firearm from her home in New Jersey. She initially purchased the gun while she was living in Atlanta, Ga., and attending chiropractic school. When neighbors reported a stalker looking through her windows at night, a police officer suggested that Mia take steps to insure her safety. “The officer told me I’d better go out in the morning and get a gun.”“The officer told me I’d better go out in the morning and get a gun.”
Mia never had a problem getting her firearm to New Jersey, but when it came to transporting it out of the state, she and her husband Steven Berman realized that they ought to do their research. “I read the following information on the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) website, which stated that ‘firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only.’ And that’s exactly what we did,” he says.
As they made their way through security at the Newark airport, things seemed at first to be going smoothly. “We went to the airport; it was in the original manufacturer’s box,” explains Mia. “It was inside a hard, non-crushable suitcase that had double locks on it, which is what I was told was required. I declared it at the desk, I signed the form … so they x-rayed the luggage and a TSA man said, ‘Everything’s fine. We can see that it’s unloaded, that there’s no ammunition anywhere in the bag,’ and he was ready to send it through when the counter agent said, ‘Well, you have to personally put this paper inside.’ He opened it up … and he said, ‘Oh no, it has to be in a metal box.’ My whole life turned upside-down.”
It turns out that the language used on the TSA website was misleading. “It doesn’t say a separate locked container,” says New Jersey attorney Evan Nappen, who is representing Mia. “It’s very ambiguous.” The TSA agent who was working the counter saw that there had been a misunderstanding and tried to help, walking Mia around the area to try to find a suitable case for her firearm. But in the meantime, a police sergeant on the scene called a local prosecutor—who ordered him to arrest Mia.
“I saw my wife surrounded by police officers,” says Steven. “My daughter Bella, who is four years old, went up to my wife and started hugging her … My wife was in a jail cell for eight hours. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness.” When she was finally released, Mia was informed that her bail was set at $50,000 due to the “severity” of her crime.“He opened it up … and he said, ‘Oh no, it has to be in a metal box.’ My whole life turned upside-down.”
Attorney Nappen says that this isn’t just another case in which a gun owner breaks the law by accident. “There’s a specific exemption in New Jersey law that allows an individual to take their handgun ... between residences while moving, and New Jersey law says it has to be unloaded and in a gun box. Well, that’s just where it was. She is innocent under New Jersey law. She is within that exemption completely. She was legal for what she did. She shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place at all.”
Mia says that the police who arrested her were apologetic and said that they knew the state gun laws were “a little crazy.” Now her daughter warns her when she sees law-enforcement officers and hopes that they won’t take her mother away. “These gun laws are ruining people’s lives,” Mia concludes.
The case is ongoing, and Mia could still lose her chiropractic license—her means of livelihood—and spend serious time in jail, away from her family. She sees herself as a victim of the state’s compulsion to get “guns off the streets” at any cost. “They need to focus on real criminals breaking the law, not people transporting an unloaded weapon,” says Steven.
Mia Higginbotham was being a good citizen when she researched her legal obligations and did her best to comply, and now her former home state is punishing her for it. She never could have imagined such severe penalties being brought against her.
“Being a citizen of the United States of America, I thought I had a constitutional right to legally own a gun,” she says.
To watch my exclusive report on the case, “New Jersey’s Web Of Injustice,” click here.