Federal jury shoots down claim of Philadelphia man who alleged police overreaching in gun confiscation

By Jon Campisi | Nov 1, 2011

A Philadelphia man who sued city police officers last year for alleged Fourth Amendment violations for confiscating, during a traffic stop, his legally owned firearm, which he was licensed to carry, has lost his battle in federal court.

A Philadelphia man who sued city police officers last year for alleged Fourth Amendment violations for confiscating, during a traffic stop, his legally owned firearm, which he was licensed to carry, has lost his battle in federal court.

A six-member civil jury last week unanimously shot down William Lawler’s claims that his constitutional rights were violated  in April 2008 when police pulled him over for alleged “unsafe passing on the left.”

The traffic infraction was later thrown out in court, but Lawler was left to defend himself against what he viewed as police overreaching during the April 19, 2008 incident, in which officers allegedly used Lawler’s political bumper stickers as a pretext to search his vehicle.

In his civil complaint against the City of Philadelphia and four police officers, which was filed Jan. 15, 2010, at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Lawler claimed that the cops confiscated his gun after they said he failed to voluntarily inform them he had the firearm in his possession.

The case brought up some legal discrepancies; Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act does not have a provision that says motorists, who are legally licensed to carry a firearm, and have their gun on them at the time of the vehicle stop, are required to inform officers they are carrying a gun.

However, a memorandum that accompanies the License to Carry Firearms application in Philadelphia states licensees must immediately inform officers they are armed.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, testifying during the three-day trial last week, admitted the wording in the memorandum needed to be changed to conform with state law, according to James Lee, Lawler’s attorney.

But other than that admission, it appears Lawler has lost his battle against the police – at least for now.

Lee, of the Philadelphia law firm of Brooker, Richardson, Dickerson, Lee & Associates, said he is disturbed by the jury’s verdict for numerous reasons, and has vowed to take Lawler’s fight to the next level.

“We’re going to appeal this, yes,” Lee told the Pennsylvania Record in a lengthy phone interview Monday.

Lee said the outcome of the trial is disheartening for various reasons.

First, the cops on the witness stand testified that Lawler gave them no reason to feel as though their safety was in jeopardy during the car stop, which happened at noon on a weekday.

The officers also showed prejudice in testifying that they believe motorists should immediately have to disclose that they’re carrying a firearm when stopped by police, since that’s mere opinion, and not something required under state law.

But the main issue for Lee is the fact that police used Lawler’s politically charged bumper stickers as apparent justification for asking Lawler if he was armed, and subsequently taking it upon themselves to search Lawler’s vehicle, even over his objections to the vehicle search.

Among the stickers on the back of Lawler’s vehicle, according to the lawsuit, were ones that read: “Fear The Government That Fears Your Gun,” “Say NO To Police Brutality And Lawlessness!” and “Philadelphia Police, fulfill your oath & duty to defend the Constitution & uphold the law. Refuse to obey the illegal, draconian, and oppressive anti-gun legislation passed by our corrupt city politicians!”

The complaint alleged that within minutes of being pulled over, numerous additional officers arrived on the scene, and all were overheard by Lawler discussing the nature of the statements contained in the bumper stickers.

One of the defendant officers, named only by  his last name, Richardson, in the complaint, (the others are John Doe Officers 1-3), then asked Lawler whether Lawler was armed. Lawler advised the officer that he was, and that he was in possession of a valid License To Carry Firearms.

At one point, the complaint alleged, Lawler overheard one officer say that the cops would find a reason to take Lawler’s gun, the suit stated.

Lee maintains that bumper stickers are a First Amendment exercise, and that their existence shouldn’t have been a pretext to harass his client.

“It went from a simple traffic stop to a full-blown” investigation of Lawler, Lee said.

Amanda Shoffel, the assistant city solicitor who worked on the case, has other thoughts about the trial’s outcome.

“We’re very happy that the jury came to the right decision,” Shoffel said by phone Monday.

Shoffel said the reason officers briefly detained Lawler by putting him in handcuffs and placing him in the back of a police squad car while they conducted an investigation, (he was never formally arrested or charged with a crime), was because Lawler was acting in an agitated manner and was being uncooperative.

“He didn’t [immediately] tell them he was armed and they knew that he was,” Shoffel said.

Officers then asked to frisk Lawler and search his vehicle, “and he became uncooperative and wouldn’t listen and he became pretty agitated with the police officers,” she said.

Although Shoffel claimed that officers “knew” Lawler was armed, when pressed by a reporter, she then admitted that they had a “suspicion” he was armed, presumably because they noticed the pro-gun bumper stickers.

She then slightly revised her statement, saying, “They had a reasonable suspicion that he was armed,” and that that suspicion gave them the authority to conduct an “investigation” at the scene, she said.

Shoffel conceded that the state’s Uniform Firearm’s Act does not have a provision mandating that motorists must inform police officers they are carrying a gun immediately after being pulled over.

However, state law does say citizens are required to answer the question if a police officer directly asks them, she said.

Lee, Lawler’s attorney, is dismayed by the verdict. One of his main points of contention has to do with the fact that U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker wouldn’t allow him to admit a section of the state’s firearms statute into evidence. What’s most disturbing, Lee said, is that the section is the one that talks about people not having to divulge to police that they’re carrying a gun, what he

feels is the heart of his case.

Lee, during the phone interview, said he asked the judge three different times if he could enter the statute into evidence, but she denied his request each time.

The decision came despite the fact that Commissioner Ramsey testified about the issue, as did other cops. And on top of that, Lee said, opposing counsel didn’t even object to his entering the statute into evidence.

Still, the judge wouldn’t budge.

“They all admitted that that was the law,” Lee said about there being no need to inform cops one’s carrying. “But she wouldn’t allow me to admit into evidence what the law really is, and what should have happened.”

Lee said he was attempting to show that the police department doesn’t follow state statute.

“How can I do that without showing what the law really is,” he said.

Lee said the judge noted that this was a federal civil rights case, not a state case, hence her initial reasoning in not allowing the statute to be entered into evidence.

What really bothered Lee about the case were procedural issues.

One of his main appeals issues, he said, will concern jury selection. During the jury pick, one person who went on to sit on the jury said he or she didn’t “believe” in the Second Amendment and another said he or she would be more inclined to believe the testimony of a police officer because of the nature of his job.

Another person eventually chosen to be a juror had merely said he would “try to be objective” while deliberating on the case, according to Lee.

“I feel that the jury selection was very suspect,” Lee said.

The original complaint painted the picture of an out-of-control police department whose alleged disregard for the law was viewed as highly problematic.

“Plaintiff advised the officers that their actions were unlawful and in violation of state and federal law,” the lawsuit stated. “The officers responded with expletives and advised plaintiff that they were ‘the law around here and that when you deal with us, you give up your rights.’”

The lawsuit claimed that after officers completed the search of Lawler’s vehicle, the plaintiff was advised that his carry license was valid, but police were nonetheless going to confiscate the license and Lawler’s gun.

According to a story in the Philadelphia Daily News, it took Lawler 689 days, $2,000 in legal fees and a judge’s order just to get his license and $800 gun back.

The lawsuit had contained counts of unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, unlawful retaliation against the plaintiff in violation of his First Amendment rights, deprivation of the plaintiff’s Second Amendment rights, and federal and civil rights conspiracy counts.

There were also state law claims and a monell claim against the City of Philadelphia.

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