The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Bristol over the police department’s refusal to return to its owners a firearm that the agency seized more than a year ago. The suit, filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, is on behalf of two parents who are Bristol residents and inherited their son’s firearm collection after he tragically took his own life.  The suit argues that the Bristol Police Department violated the parents’ constitutional rights by refusing to return the firearm to them.

The litigation marks the fourth time in less than five years that the ACLU has sued over Rhode Island law enforcement’s practice of seizing lawfully owned firearms under exigent circumstances but then refusing to return them without court intervention. In January 2016, the couple’s son used a handgun to take his own life.  The firearm he used was one of about a dozen he lawfully possessed, and all were seized by the Bristol Police Department during an investigation of the incident.  The investigation confirmed that their son committed suicide and also determined that none of the firearms were positive for “criminal activity” in a federal database check.

Subsequent to this, the parents, who inherited the firearms upon their son’s death and seeking closure on this tragedy, requested the firearms be returned. Over the course of 2016, all were returned except the handgun used in the suicide.  Despite the fact that the gun is not evidence in any criminal or civil matter, the police department has refused to return it, even after repeated requests were made in writing.  Instead, the plaintiffs were told they would have to obtain a state court order to recover it.

The parents, wishing to protect their family’s privacy, have expressed a desire not to be interviewed about the lawsuit.

Thomas Lyons, ACLU of RI cooperating attorney, said today: “It remains unclear why local law enforcement agencies continue to defy the law and refuse to return property to their owners without court intervention, but it’s a clear violation of constitutional protections - and it needs to stop.”

Previous cases of nearly identical circumstances suggest evidence of a consistent, unspoken policy on the part of Rhode Island law enforcement to seize firearms that are lawfully owned by law abiding citizens and refuse to return them without court intervention.  In 2012, the ACLU of RI sued Cranston over a similar situation; a settlement in that case resulted in a return of the weapons and Cranston paying damages and attorney fees.  Despite that resolution, the City failed to change its practices, and as a result, a second lawsuit was filed against Cranston in December 2015 on behalf of another lawful Rhode Island gun owner.  In a separate lawsuit of virtually identical circumstances, the ACLU of RI also sued the Town of North Smithfield in April 2015.  In that case, a judge ruled that North Smithfield police violated the plaintiff’s due process rights by requiring him to obtain a court order to recover his property.

“As we have noted in three other lawsuits, police simply do not have the right to keep the property of law abiding Rhode Islanders,” said Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director.  “While we recognize the need for police to sometimes seize weapons without the need for a warrant, they cannot arbitrarily enforce their own unconstitutional rules in deciding when to return these items to their lawful owners.”

Information about the case, including the full text of the lawsuit, is available here.