A federal jury today awarded $20,000 in damages to North Smithfield resident Jason Richer as compensation for the violation of his due process rights when the North Smithfield Police Department refused, for six years, to return lawfully possessed weapons they had seized from him, and instead demanded that he obtain a state court order to get his guns back.
In previously ruling on the suit, filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, U.S. District Judge John McConnell, Jr. agreed 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.”
That court decision led to a jury trial and the verdict that was issued today. The verdict is important not just for Richer, but because the ACLU has been forced to sue at least one other community, Cranston, with a similar policy.
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 days 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. Other repeated requests by Richer over the years for the return of his weapons were consistently rebuffed, finally prompting him to contact the ACLU. Shortly after the ACLU filed suit, the Town agreed to return his weapons, but the judge’s ruling allowed Richer to proceed with a claim for damages, which was heard by a jury yesterday and today.
ACLU attorney Lyons said today: “We are gratified that the jury recognized that Mr. Richer suffered significant damages when his constitutional rights were violated and he was deprived of his firearms. We hope that this sends a message to other municipalities that have been refusing to return seized guns to their lawful owners.”
Plaintiff Richer added: “After being ignored by the Town for over six years, it was very satisfying to have my day in court and to be heard by a jury of my peers. On top of that, I appreciate that the jury recognized the emotional distress that I suffered from this loss of my constitutional rights and my property. I feel vindicated in my years-long effort to bring this matter to conclusion, and I hope that this verdict will convince other police departments to promptly return any property they are illegally holding so that no one else will have to endure the hurdles I encountered.”