A federal judge put former Charlotte mayor and convicted felon Patrick Cannon under house arrest Thursday rather than sending him immediately to jail for casting an illegal ballot last week.
Cannon will be on home detention with electronic monitoring until Nov. 18, when he is scheduled to report to a West Virginia prison to begin a 44-month sentence for accepting bribes in an FBI sting.
Felons lose their right to vote, and North Carolina law considers it a new felony when they cast ballots anyway. By breaking the law, Cannon violated the terms of his bond and was subject to immediate incarceration.
U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney stopped short of that. Three weeks after he sentenced Cannon to prison, the judge chastised the 47-year-old Democrat for “causing further pain for our community.”
Whitney credited the Observer for alerting the community to Cannon’s vote, and agreed with prosecutors that the former mayor had clearly violated the conditions of his release.
But Whitney, a former chairman of the Mecklenburg Republican Party who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, said taking Cannon into custody on Thursday was impractical.
He said a bed might not be available at the Federal Corrections Institution in Morgantown, W.Va., where Cannon will serve his time. Sending him to another prison or holding him indefinitely at the Mecklenburg County jail, Whitney said, would cause “greater expense to the taxpayer.”
Still, Whitney said he needed “to make sure Mr. Cannon and I quit meeting like this.”
So, Cannon will spend his last 12 days before prison at his Ballantyne-area home. At his expense, Cannon will wear a monitoring device. Cannon’s days of house arrest will not be subtracted from his prison sentence.
One of the key factors behind the judge’s decision was that while Whitney believed Cannon should have known he couldn’t vote, court officials could find no record that he actually was told so.
As a result, Whitney ordered a new four-step plan for the courts in the federal Western District of North Carolina in which prosecutors, probation officers, federal magistrates and district judges will now notify defendants of their loss of voting rights, once they plead guilty or are convicted.
While Cannon dodged jail for now, his appearance in court continued a 366-day free-fall for one of the city’s longest-serving officials, who first joined the City Council in 1993.
On Nov. 6, 2013, Cannon was elected mayor, jubilantly thanking voters for helping him realize a “life goal.”
He was arrested in March, charged with accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents. He pleaded guilty in June to a corruption charge and was sentenced by Whitney on Oct. 14. At the time, Cannon’s attorneys asked that their client be admitted to a prison alcohol-treatment program.
A year and a day after his election, Cannon appeared for a second time in Whitney’s court. He appeared somber and drawn. The youngest man ever elected to the City Council now sported a goatee sprinkled with gray.
At 12:42 p.m., Cannon stood before Whitney for the second time in three weeks. Once again, he apologized, telling the judge and the community that it didn’t occur to him that he was breaking the law when he early voted Oct. 30 at Ballantyne Commons.
Cannon said he cast the ballot, not in defiance, but out of an Election Day routine of always voting with his wife, Trenna, who sat a few rows behind him in court.
“I did this without thinking,” Cannon said. “The light didn’t come on that day.”
Cannon added that he wasn’t trying to sneak into the polling place. “I don’t know how Patrick Cannon can sneak and do anything,” he said.
He said he did not know he had done anything wrong until his probation officers called him on Election Day, after the Observer story first appeared.
Cannon’s attorney James Ferguson also characterized the vote as an accident, saying Cannon “was not thinking as he should be thinking, and is not focused on how his life has changed.”
Yet he said his client has “been almost perfect” in abiding by the terms of his bond, even calling his probation officer before he crossed into South Carolina to buy cheaper gas.
It may be January before Cannon’s name is removed from the county’s list of eligible voters. But Whitney ruled Thursday that the ex-mayor’s Oct. 30 ballot be thrown out. A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said Thursday that the agency is investigating the matter.
Later this month, Cannon will make the 391-mile trip from his Ballantyne home to join the 1,100 male inmates at the minimum-security prison in Morgantown.
First, he faced the cameras for perhaps the last time before his imprisonment. He thanked Whitney for allowing him to spend the rest of his release at home with his family. He apologized for causing any further embarrassment to a community “that trusts us to do the right thing.”
Neither he nor Ferguson would answer questions.
But future federal prison inmate 29396-058 had one last thing to say:
“God willing, I’ll see you on the other end.”