Law Enforcement May Not Destroy Seized Firearms Without Providing Notice to the Owner
Ninth Circuit Reverses Lower Court Ruling on Due Process Grounds
The Los Angeles Police Department obtained a search warrant from the Los Angeles Superior Court and seized more than 400 firearms from Wayne Wright’s residence and storage unit in Ventura County in 2004. That set off a long-term legal dispute between Wright and the LAPD that resulted in a recent federal appeals court decision regarding law enforcement’s obligations before deciding to destroy seized firearms.
In Wright v. Beck, handed down Dec. 1, the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s summary judgment ruling and found that a reasonable trier of fact could find that destruction of seized firearms without first providing notice to the owner is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process.
In 2006, Wright asked the Ventura County Superior Court for return of his seized firearms. The LAPD agreed to release 28 firearms registered to Wright but opposed release of the remaining firearms. The court ordered release of the non-firearm property in a written order. The order did not address the remaining firearms that Wright wanted released.
Wright and his counsel then spent the next 7 years negotiating on and off with LAPD detectives Richard Tompkins and James Edwards about the kinds of records Wright would need to furnish to obtain his firearms.
In August 2011, Wright filed another motion in the Ventura Superior Court for return of his firearms. As a result of the LAPD’s representation at the hearing that it had delayed reviewing Wright’s records, the court ordered release of the 26 firearms it had agreed belong to Wright. Again, the court did not address the status of the remaining disputed firearms. Instead, the court instructed the parties to meet and confer to determine whether the ownership status of the remaining firearms could be resolved informally and, if not, to return to court.
In December 2013, Detective Edwards, without notice to Wright, asked the same Los Angeles Superior Court judge who had approved the 2004 search warrant for an order permitting destruction of the remaining firearms. The court issued the order. In June 2014, the LAPD destroyed the remaining 300-plus firearms.
In 2015, Wright sued the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles in federal court alleging, among other claims, violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights under 42 U.S.C § 1983. The district court held that Wright’s due process rights were not violated because he was not entitled to notice that the LAPD sought a disposition order from the Los Angeles Superior Court to destroy his firearms. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the LAPD and the City. Wright appealed.
The Ninth Circuit reviewed the grants of summary judgment. To address the merits of the LAPD’s argument that the notice requirement was satisfied, the Ninth Circuit divided up the chronology and nature of the deprivations. The court determined that the LAPD destroyed Wright’s property amid ongoing negotiations between Wright and the LAPD. Critical to this claim is that, without notice to Wright, Detective Edwards sought an order from the Los Angeles Superior Court granting permission to destroy Wright’s firearms. The LAPD also argued that Wright did have statutory notice under California Penal Code section 34000(a). However, because Wright had a pending claim of ownership over the firearms, the federal appellate court determined that the LAPD failed to show that it was undisputed that the firearms were no longer needed as exhibits in a criminal action, or were unclaimed or abandoned under Penal Code section 34000(a), therefore justifying their destruction.
Thus, taking the facts in light most favorable to Wright, the Ninth Circuit held that a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Edwards violated Wright’s due process rights and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings on Wright’s claims.
Destruction or disposition of firearms is a particularly vexing and often hotly disputed matter between gun owners and law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies and their counsel need to be attuned to the constitutional and statutory provisions applicable to the disposition of such private property and ensure that all required and reasonable notices and processes are provided.
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