The government has embarked on a two-prong process to go after firearms in the hands of people ordered to surrender firearms or whom they deem to be an extreme risk to themselves or others.
On January 1, 2018, the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit was established. This unit is a coordinated, interjurisdictional approach to enhance and enforce court orders issued in protection order hearings which require the immediate surrender of firearms. This unit, located in the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, will be comprised of:
- A Program Manager
- Dedicated firearms prosecutors
- Court Coordinator to provide information to judicial officers in court hearings
- A "Court Orders Problem-Solver"
- Police Officers specifically dedicated to serve and enforce the orders
- A "DV - Firearms Advocate" to help petitioners and their families
As you may have seen, firearm violence is a hot button topic right now in the media, squarely in the public eye and this is clearly a statement of the significant priority police, prosecutors and the courts are giving to this issue. This unit will be seeking private funding in addition to already provided public funding to develop and create an integrated database which will share data and provide access to the members of this unit as needed. It will establish metrics to track compliance and progress to ensure that the program is working as intended. This unit has the publically pronounced support of the King County Executive, Seattle Mayor, the Seattle and King County Councils, the King County Prosecutor and the Seattle City Attorney.
What the public can expect to see is (1) a review of all existing domestic violence protection orders and no contact orders to track whether weapons have been surrendered as ordered, (2) court hearings in cases which may result in search warrants where a respondent claims they have no weapons and the petitioner says they do, and (3) criminal charges filed in the event firearms have not been surrendered as ordered by the court.
If you find yourself in a position where you haven't surrendered weapons or the petitioner says that you do (even if you don't), you should contact an attorney immediately. I have already represented one individual charged with failing to turn in firearms under this new initiative and we can expect to see more of these prosecutions as this task force digs through court records and attends order for protection and restraining order hearings.
In 2017, the Washington State Legislature passed the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which is codified in RCW 7.94. The intent of the law is designed to prevent individuals who are alleged to be at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms by allowing family members or the police to obtain an ex-parte temporary court order to surrender firearms without the respondent having the opportunity to be heard at this first hearing. What this means is that the police or family/household member can go into court, file a petition that they think someone's behavior constitutes an extreme risk, and obtain an order from the court which allows the police to then go and knock on the door of a citizen and take their firearms away. The citizen then has the right to appear at a hearing two weeks later, try to undo that which has already been done and try to prevent the court from ordering that they be prevented from possessing any firearms in the future. This is believed to be the first time that the police themselves have a right to directly petition the court for the issuance of a civil protection order as a party to the litigation as opposed to other civil protection orders in which the only persons that have standing to petition for such an order are private persons who are directly involved in the alleged behavior. This clearly places the police departments as public servants into a position of knocking on citizens doors to come and take their firearms away even in cases where family or household members have not filed this type of action with the court themselves.
Citizens concerned with the ever extending police state many believe we now find ourselves in voiced their concerns through their state representatives about the potential for these orders to be abused and back door attempts to begin to disarm private citizens based merely on allegations without significant proof. The statute itself is very broad and allows a judge to take someone's firearms away even in instances where that person has no criminal history, no mental health history and based simply on allegations. This is a brand new area of the law and it will be necessary for lawyers representing those who find themselves faced with an ERPO to remind the courts and judges that the entry of an ERPO is a governmental intrusion into a citizen's constitutional right to liberty and to possess firearms.
While the government's' attempts to take firearms away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others is commendable, as with any other request for protection orders, restraining orders or no contact orders, the court system can be abused by someone who is using the system as sword for ulterior motives rather than a shield. As someone who has successfully defended people faced with these orders, this happens far more often than people think. It is important to immediately obtain the advice of a lawyer experienced in these types of cases whenever you or someone you know faces this type of situation and the earlier the better.
Fortunately, there is hope. I recently had the first case ever pursued by a local police jurisdiction. After continuing the hearing which was set in front of a judge I believed had a bias against gun owners and in favor of the police, I was able to have a full hearing in front of a judge I knew from my 30 years of experience in the court system would give my client a fair shake. The judge denied the police department's request for the issuance of an ERPO finding that they couldn't meet their burden to establish the evidence necessary to support this significant constitutional infringement on my clients' rights.
Stay tuned as this statute has just now been implemented as part of the government's new efforts to have firearms taken away from it's citizens.