WASHINGTON - Hunter Biden was indicted Thursday on federal firearms charges, the latest step in a long-running investigation into the president's son that puts the case on track toward a possible high-stakes trial as the 2024 election looms.
Biden is accused of lying about his drug use when he bought a firearm in October 2018, a period when he has acknowledged struggling with addiction to crack cocaine, according to the indictment filed in federal court in Delaware by a special counsel overseeing the case.
The indictment comes weeks after the collapse of a plea deal that would have averted a criminal trial and distracting headlines for President Joe Biden.
The court fight doesn't seem likely to end soon. Hunter Biden's defense attorney argues he didn't violate the law and remains protected by an immunity provision that was part of the plea deal. The charges, meanwhile, are rarely filed as stand-alone counts and a federal appeals court recently found the measure he was charged under unconstitutional.
He's also been under investigation for his business dealings, and the special counsel has indicated that tax charges could be filed at some point in Washington or in California, where he lives.
File: Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, arrives at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC, US, on Tuesday, July 4, 2023. Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The legal arguing comes as a political fight also plays out. The House has formally opened an impeachment inquiry into the Democratic president, seeking to tie the elder Biden to his son’s businesses and divert attention away from former President Donald Trump’s own legal woes. Trump's include federal indictments over the handling of classified documents and efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden.
Republicans have unearthed no significant evidence so far of wrongdoing by the elder Biden, who as vice president spoke often to his son and stopped by a business dinner with his son’s associates. The White House maintains Joe Biden was not involved in his son’s business affairs.
Republicans had slammed the plea agreement that spared Hunter Biden jail time as a "sweetheart deal." Rep. James Comer, the lead Republican pursing the impeachment inquiry, called the gun charges "a very small start" and pushed for investigation of whether the president was involved in his son’s business dealings. Trump also pointed to the lack of connection to Joe Biden in the gun charge plea agreement.
Federal prosecutors investigating Hunter Biden have not indicated Joe Biden is connected over the course of their yearslong probe. The lead prosecutor, Trump-appointed Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, was elevated to special counsel last month, giving him broad authority to investigate and report out his findings.
The three-count indictment he filed Thursday alleges Hunter Biden lied on a form required for every gun purchase when he bought a .38-caliber Colt Cobra Special at a Wilmington, Delaware, gun shop.
He's charged with two counts of making false statements, first for checking a box falsely saying he was not addicted to drugs and second for giving it to the shop for their federally required records. A third count alleges he possessed the gun for about 11 days despite knowing he was a drug user.
The counts are punishable by up to 25 years in prison if convicted, though "actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum sentence," a Justice Department statement from Weiss said.
A felony gun charge against Hunter Biden, 53, had previously been part of the plea deal that also included guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges of failing to pay taxes on about $4 million of income in 2017 and 2018.
Under the terms, he would not have pleaded guilty to the gun charge, and prosecutors would have agreed to dismiss it if he stayed out of trouble for two years. But the agreement imploded during a court hearing in July when a judge raised questions about it.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell argued that part of the deal, which includes immunity provisions against other potential charges, remains in place. He said in a statement that Hunter Biden "possessing an unloaded gun for 11 days" presented no threat to public safety and slammed "'MAGA Republicans’ improper and partisan interference in this process," a reference to Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.
Lowell took over after Hunter Biden's previous lawyer in the case, Christopher Clark, withdrew, saying he might be called to testify about the immunity provisions.
Prosecutors maintain the agreement never took effect and is now invalid.
FILE - Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden, during a state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted by US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Thursday, June 22, 2023.
Charges related to gun possession by drug users are rare, especially when not in connection with other crimes. Of all the people sentenced for illegal gun possession in 2021, about 5% were charged due to drug use, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data.
Most such cases are brought against people accused of some other crime as well, said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor and expert in gun policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. "It’s relatively rare to prosecute someone for being a substance abuser in possession of firearms, absent other criminal activity, or unusual circumstances," he said.
A federal appeals court recently found the longstanding purchase ban didn’t stand up to new standards for gun laws set by the Supreme Court. The Fifth Circuit found the nation's "history and traditions" don't support "disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug use."
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have continued their own investigations into nearly every aspect of Hunter Biden’s business dealings as well as the Justice Department’s handling of the case.
Two FBI agents who worked on the Hunter Biden case testified separately behind closed doors this week to lawmakers about allegations of political interference in the case. Thomas Sobocinski, the special agent in charge of the Baltimore Field Office of the FBI and an unidentified agent who served as his No. 2, told Congress that Weiss had full authority of the yearslong investigation, rebutting IRS whistleblower testimony that the Justice Department slow-walked the probe.
Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.