Due process is a fundamental tenet underlying our civil liberties, and one can reject the hackneyed mantra that “guns don’t kill people” and still appreciate that gun owners have rights too. The ACLU does.
That’s why last week the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of a North Smithfield resident, who is seeking the return of lawfully-possessed weapons that were seized from him over six years ago by the local police department. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas W. Lyons on behalf of Jason Richer, argues that the North Smithfield Police Department has violated his right to due process and his right to keep and bear arms by retaining his property without just cause. The ACLU successfully filed a similar lawsuit against the Cranston Police Department three years ago.
In September 2008, police responded to Richer’s house when his now ex-wife called to express concern that he had tried to harm himself by taking pills. Although Richer explained that he was not suicidal and that his wife had misconstrued a conversation they had, police forced him to submit to a mental health evaluation at Landmark Hospital. The doctor who saw him there discharged him shortly after his arrival, and no charges were ever filed or any other action taken. In the meantime, police seized “for safe keeping” three lawfully registered guns from a locked case in Richer’s garage. Two months later, when Richer tried to retrieve the guns, police refused to return them, telling him he would need to obtain a court order.
Both his ex-wife and a psychologist provided letters to the Department in support of returning the guns to him, but the Department still refused to do so. Over the years, Richer has repeated his request for the return of the weapons, but he has been consistently rebuffed. He most recently pressed a captain at the department for their return in January of this year. The Captain said he would talk with the town solicitor about it, but Richer never heard back from anybody. In March, the ACLU wrote a letter to the police chief on Richer’s behalf, but also received no response, prompting the filing of today’s lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that the police department’s practice of requiring “weapons owners who are not charged with a crime to engage in formal litigation in order to recover their seized property” violates Richer’s due process and Second Amendment rights. The suit seeks a court order declaring the police department’s practice unconstitutional and requiring the return of his weapons, as well as an award of monetary damages.
“I am resolved to do all I can to end the unconstitutional practices and procedures employed by the North Smithfield Police Department. From the moment my firearms were seized, I have been asked to prove that I am fit to have them returned, and all the proof I have provided has been dismissed and ignored. This flies in the face of the presumption of innocence we enjoy as Americans. This practice must be stopped,” Jason Richer said when the suit was filed.
In 2012, the ACLU filed a virtually identical suit against the Cranston Police Department, which settled the case by returning the weapons that had been unlawfully held, agreeing to make any necessary repairs to the weapons while they had been confiscated, and paying monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.
Mr. Richer has been extraordinarily patient, yet the police have done nothing but make excuses about returning his property to him. Police departments must learn that the Constitution simply does not allow them to arbitrarily keep the property of innocent residents.
Whether police seize lawfully owned firearms as part of an emergency investigation, use civil forfeiture laws to impound a car from a person who is suspected of drug dealing, or confiscate medical marijuana from somebody alleged to not be a registered patient, the principle should be the same: people have a right to have their property returned – promptly – once officials conclude that no criminal activity has occurred or the basis for the seizure has been found wanting.