Harrison County

‘Unlike any other case.’ Coast man gets a break in court after police wrongly returned his guns.

A former welder at Ingalls Shipbuilding has been sentenced to time served and at least 30 days of inpatient drug and mental health treatment after admitting he possessed guns while illegally using drugs.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop two additional charges against Stephen Drew Montana, 28, of knowingly possessing firearms after commitment to a mental institution.

“This is a serious offense,” presiding U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden said at sentencing earlier this week. “The sentence needs to reflect that.”

“The court also recognizes that there are circumstances in this case which are unlike any other case the court recalls in recent memory.”

Montana’s guns were taken away from him after he showed up in February 2016 at Ingalls acting strangely, with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle and Glock pistol in his truck. He was committed to a mental institution and, months after his release, went to the Pascagoula Police Department to retrieve his guns.

Police secured a court order to return the weapons to him, even though he was not legally supposed to have them because of his commitment. They said they failed to check records that would have shown the commitment order and his ineligibility to carry weapons.

Police got the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives involved after Montana again started exhibiting odd behavior. After Montana canceled a meeting with an ATF agent, agents secured a warrant and arrested him in February 2018 at his grandparents’ Biloxi home, seizing the AK-47, Glock and a Ruger pistol.

Montana’s attorney, Melvin Cooper of Biloxi, called the Pascagoula Police Department’s return of his guns “outrageous government conduct” and said the results could have been “catastrophic” had Montana been violent.

Montana admitted during the court proceedings that he had been abusing prescribed medication and taking other narcotics that had not been prescribed to him, in addition to using marijuana. He also was convicted on a DUI charge in 2016.

He said he was unaware when he went to the police department that he was not supposed to be carrying guns.

“To be honest with you your honor, I made a mistake,” he said at a sentencing hearing. “If I had known it was illegal, I wouldn’t have made it.” He said that he had served 14 to 15 months behind bars since his arrest.

“It was definitely a learning experience if nothing else,” he said. “I don’t foresee myself getting in trouble again.”

Jail exacerbated his mental health issues. A psychiatrist who examined him at attorney Cooper’s request said that a nurse practitioner at the Harrison County jail was medicating Montana with a type and quantity of drugs a psychiatrist would not have prescribed.

The judge and prosecutors agreed that treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, plus his mental health issues, would be best for Montana. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could have been sent to prison for up to three years.

He is undergoing treatment at the Mississippi Drug & Alcohol Treatment Center in Biloxi.

Montana will be on supervised release for three years and must follow the directives of the mental health professionals treating him, including taking any medication as prescribed. Otherwise, Ozerden warned, Montana’s supervised release will be revoked and he will serve the time in prison.

“I’m very happy for him and his family that he was able to enroll in a mental health treatment program,” Cooper told the Sun Herald on Wednesday.

“The court, as well as the U.S. (attorney), more or less took into consideration the totality of the circumstances, particularly his mental health issues.”