Unique law lets police seize guns before a crime is committed

The American-Republican | August 3, 2008
By Paul Hughes

HARTFORD -- Using a unique state law, police in Connecticut have disarmed dozens of gun owners based on suspicions that they might harm themselves or others.

The state's gun seizure law is considered the first and only law in the country that allows the confiscation of a gun before the owner commits an act of violence. Police and state prosecutors can obtain seizure warrants based on concerns about someone's intentions.

State police and 53 police departments have seized more than 1,700 guns since the law took effect in October 1999, according to a new report to the legislature. There are nearly 900,000 privately owned firearms in Connecticut today.

Opponents of a gun seizure law expressed fears in 1999 that police would abuse the law. Today, the law's backers say the record shows that hasn't been the case.

"It certainly has not been abused. It may be underutilized," said Ron Pinciaro, coexecutive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.

Attorney Ralph D. Sherman has represented several gun owners who had their firearms seized under the law. His latest client was denied a pistol permit because the man was once the subject of a seizure warrant.

"In every case I was involved in I thought it was an abuse," said Sherman, who fought against the law's passage.

The report to the legislature shows that state judges are inclined to issue gun seizure warrants and uphold seizures when challenged in court.

Out of more than 200 requests for warrants, Superior Court judges rejected just two applications one for lack of probable cause, and another because police had already seized the individual's firearms under a previous warrant. Both rejections occurred in 1999. The legislature's Office of Legislative Research could document only 22 cases of judges ordering seized guns returned to their owners.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, is one of the chief authors of the gun seizure law. In his view, the number of warrant applications and gun seizures show that police haven't abused the law.

"It is pretty consistent," said Lawlor, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Robert T. Crook, the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition of Sportsmen, questioned whether police have seized more guns than the number reported to the legislature. Crook said the law doesn't require police departments or the courts to compile or report information on gun seizures. The Office of Legislative Research acknowledged that its report may have underreported seizures.

"We don't know how many guns were actually confiscated or returned to their owners," Crook said.

Police seized guns in 95 percent of the 200-plus cases that the researchers were able to document. In 11 cases, police found no guns, the report said.

Spouses and live-in partners were the most common source of complaints that led to warrant applications. They were also the most frequent targets of threats. In a Southington case, a man threatened to shoot a neighbor's dog.

The gun seizure law arose out of a murderous shooting rampage at the headquarters of the Connecticut Lottery Corp. in 1998. A disgruntled worker shot and killed four top lottery officials and then committed suicide.

Under the law, any two police officers or a state prosecutor may obtain warrants to seize guns from individuals who pose an imminent risk of harming themselves or others. Before applying for warrants, police must first conduct investigations and determine there is no reasonable alternative to seizing someone's guns. Judges must also make certain findings.

The law states that courts shall hold a hearing within 14 days of a seizure to determine whether to return the firearms to their owners or order the guns held for up to one year.

Sherman said his five clients all waited longer than two weeks for their hearings. Courts scheduled hearing dates within the 14-day deadline, but then the proceedings kept getting rescheduled. In one client's case, Sherman said, the wait was three months.

Many gun owners don't get their seized firearms back. Courts ordered guns held in more than one-third of the documented seizures since 1999. Judges directed guns destroyed, turned over to someone else or sold in more than 40 other cases.

A Torrington man was one of the 22 gun owners who are known to have had their seized firearms returned to them.

In October 2006, Torrington police got a seizure warrant after the man made 28 unsubstantiated claims of vandalism to his property in three-year period. In the application, police described the man's behavior as paranoid and delusional. They said he installed an alarm system, surveillance cameras, noise emitting devices and spotlights for self-protection. They also reported that he had a pistol permit and possessed firearms.

A judge ordered the man's guns returned four months after police seized them. The judge said the police had failed to show the man posed any risk to himself or others. There also was no documented history of mental illness, no criminal record and no history of misusing firearms. "In fact, the firearms were found in a locked safe when the officers executed the warrant," the ruling said.

Lawlor and Sherman weren't aware of any constitutional challenges to the law, or any state or federal court rulings on the question of its constitutionality.

Lawlor said there have been no challenges on constitutional grounds because of the way the law was written. "The whole point was to make sure it was limited and constitutional," he said. Sherman said it is because the law is used sparingly, and because a test case would be too costly for average gun owners.

Lawlor, Crook, and Sherman don't see the legislature repealing or revising the gun seizure law. Pinciaro said Connecticut Against Gun Violence doesn't see any reason why lawmakers should take either action.

"The bottom line from our perspective is, it may very well have saved lives," Pinciaro said.

Crook and Sherman said law-abiding gun owners remain at risk while the gun seizure law remains on the statute books.

"The overriding concern is anybody can report anybody with or without substantiation, and I don't think that is the American way," Crook said.