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Judge Rules Unlawful Six-Year Seizure of Weapons by North Smithfield Police

Posted: June 02, 2016|Category: Active Case Category: Due Process

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A federal judge has ruled that a North Smithfield man’s due process rights were violated when the North Smithfield Police Department refused for over six years to return lawfully possessed weapons that officers had seized from him, and instead demanded that he obtain a state court order if he wanted to get his guns back.

In ruling on a suit filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman on behalf of Jason Richer, U.S. District Judge John McConnell, Jr. agreed with the ACLU that the Town had a constitutional obligation to provide an administrative process that Richer could use to get his weapons returned, rather than force him to file a state lawsuit.

Noting the expense and effort involved in having to file a lawsuit to get one’s property returned, the court held that “access to a state court action . . . is insufficient to ensure Mr. Richer an adequate opportunity to challenge the Town’s confiscation and retention of his property” and that “some post-deprivation procedures . . . are necessary to meet the standards of due process.”

The ruling is important not just for Richer, but because other police departments in the state have similar policies in place. The ACLU has a pending lawsuit against the Cranston Police Department, challenging a similar policy requiring residents go to court to get lawfully-owned weapons returned to them once they are confiscated for any reason.

Richer’s odyssey began in September 2008, when police responded to his house after his now ex-wife called to express concern that he had tried to harm himself. 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 then provided letters to the Department in support of returning the guns to him, but the Department still refused to do so. Other repeated requests by Richer over the years for the return of his weapons were consistently rebuffed, finally prompting him to contact the ACLU for help last year.  Shortly after the ACLU filed suit, the Town agreed to return his weapons, but the judge’s ruling allows Richer to proceed with a claim for damages.

ACLU attorney Lyons said today: “We are gratified that the Court recognized that the Town of North Smithfield denied Mr. Richer his due process rights.  We hope this decision sends a signal to other cities and towns in Rhode Island that have also been seizing guns and refusing to return them to lawful gun owners.”

Plaintiff Richer added: “The police department laughed at me when I said my civil rights were being violated. I am glad to see the Court agreed with me. Individuals should not have to fight crusades to realize our constitutional rights.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown commented: “The court’s ruling stands for the basic point that the Constitution simply does not allow police to arbitrarily keep the property of innocent residents. Having filed three suits on this issue over the past four years, we are hopeful this is the last time we will need to do so.”

A copy of the court’s decision is available here.

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