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Richer v. Parmelee

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

June 1, 2016

JASON A. RICHER, Plaintiff,
v.
JASON PARMELEE as the Finance Director of the Town of North Smithfield, TOWN OF NORTH SMITHFIELD, and STEVEN E. REYNOLDS in his official capacity as Chief of the North Smithfield Police Department, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN J. MCCONNELL, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The North Smithfield police confiscated three guns from Jason A. Richer after he allegedly threatened to commit suicide during a domestic dispute with his wife. The police retained his guns for six and a half years, refusing to return them absent a court order. The Court finds that this conduct violated Mr. Richer's constitutionally protected procedural due process rights.

         I. PROCEDURE

         The case is before the Court on Mr. Richer's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment against the Town of North Smithfield and Steven E. Reynolds in his official capacity as Chief of the North Smithfield Police Department.[1] ECF No. 12.

         Mr. Richer's First Amended Complaint against the Defendants alleged violations of procedural due process; the right to bear arms! and the right to equal protection of the laws; all under the federal and state constitutions.[2] ECF No. 4. Mr. Richer also alleged a violation of the Rhode Island Firearms Act. Id. He moved for summary judgment on all of the counts, except the claim alleging violation of the equal protection of the laws. ECF No. 12-1 at 10. Several months after moving for summary judgment, Mr. Richer amended his complaint for a second time, to allege a violation of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the federal and state constitutions. ECF No. 33. He asks the Court to consider summary judgment on this count as well, arguing that the issue had been fully briefed as part of the parties' procedural due process discussion. ECF No. 34 at 2, The Court accedes to doing so in light of the parties' extensive briefing of the issue.

         The parties submitted four briefs each in support of their positions. (ECF Nos. 12-1, 23, 27, and 34 for Mr. Richer and ECF Nos. 18, 26, 32, and 37 for the Town). Mr, Richer also submitted a Statement of Undisputed Facts (ECF No. 16) and the Town responded with a Statement of Disputed Facts (ECF No. 19) and Undisputed Facts (ECF No, 20). After reviewing all of the parties' briefs, the submitted evidence, and the relevant substantive and procedural law, Mr. Richer's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         II. STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS

         In September 2008, Mr. Richer and his then-wife were having domestic difficulties that required two visits by the North Smithfield Police in a span of ten days.[3] ECF No. 20 at 1-2. The first visit by the Town police occurred when Mr. Richer called them in the midst of an argument and informed them that the couple was getting divorced and that he believed his wife was having an affair. Id. The second time, Mr. Richer's wife called the police to report that Mr. Richer was threatening to kill himself. Id. When the police and the paramedics arrived following this second call, Ms. Richer told them that she had asked for a divorce on more than one occasion, and that Mr. Richer begged her not to go through with it. Id. She told them that Mr. Richer looked at the couple's six-year old son and told him "I'm going to bed and I won[']t get up." Id. Mr. Richer then appeared to ingest some pills. Id. The couple's son confirmed the story to the police. Id.

         Mr. Richer was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. ECF No. 19 at 3. While still at the residence, the police learned that Mr. Richer had three guns located in his home workshop. ECF No. 12 at 4. Officers followed his wife into another room where they seized a 22-caliber rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a 50- caliber black powder rifle. Id. The police researched all of the seized firearms through the National Crime Information Center and none returned positive for criminal activity. ECF No. 19 at 4. The police removed the guns from the premises, and transported them to headquarters for the safety and protection of the public, Mr. Richer, and his family. Id.

         The hospital discharged Mr. Richer that same day, and asked him to follow up two days later. Id. at 3. Although the police never charged Mr. Richer with any crime, he would not be reunited with his guns until six and a half years after this September 28, 2008 incident. Id. at 4, 9.

         About three weeks after the incident, Mr. Richer went to the North Smithfield police station to retrieve his guns. Id. at 4. He reports that the police told him that he would need to obtain a court order to regain them. Id. Mr. Richer waited more than a year, and again requested the return of his guns, this time in writing. In his request, he included letters from his wife and his psychologist attesting to his well-being. Id. at 6. He did not receive a response from the Town. Id.

         Three and a half years later, on July 24, 2013, Mr. Richer returned to the North Smithfield police station and again requested the return of his property from Police Captain Tim Lafferty. Id. at 6. Captain Lafferty refused, citing concern over the police department's potential liability if the department returned the guns and someone used them for something improper. ECF No. 33 at 6 ¶ 30 and No. 38 at 2 ¶ 5. Mr. Richer continued to communicate with Captain Lafferty by phone and email on at least three more occasions in 2013 and once in 2015, all to no avail. ECF No. 19 at 7. On March 20, 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) sent a letter to Chief Steven E. Reynolds asking that the police return Mr. Richer's guns, ECF No. 19 at 8. The ACLU received no response. Id.

         Mr. Richer filed this suit for injunctive and declaratory relief, return of the weapons, and damages. ECF No. 1. On May 1, 2015, he moved for a preliminary injunction requesting the return of his firearms, ECF No. 8. On May 5, 2015, before the Court heard the preliminary injunction, but six and a half years after the police seized his property, the police returned Mr. Richer's guns to him. ECF No. 19 at 9. In the interim, the Town did not offer Mr. Richer any opportunity - short of obtaining a state court order - to contest the confiscation or retention of his property. ECF No. 16 at 12.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is warranted when "the pleadings [and discovery], together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Richer seeks relief under the R.I. Firearms Act, the Second, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and article 1, sections 2, 6, and 22 of the R.I. Constitution.

         A, Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process

         The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids the Town from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This constitutional right is actionable against state and municipal officials through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mr. Richer claims that when the Town seized his guns from his house, and refused to return them without giving him an opportunity to contest the seizure and retention, the Town deprived him of his property without due process of law. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 541 (1985) ("property [ ] cannot be deprived except pursuant to constitutionally adequate procedures"). "In evaluating a procedural due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, we must determine 'whether [the plaintiff] was deprived of a protected interest, and, if so, what process was his due.'" Garcia-Gonzalez v. Plug-Morales, 761 F.3d 81, 88 (1st Cir. 2014) (citing Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 428 (1982)).

         The Town deprived Mr. Richer of his property for six and a half years, which qualifies as a constitutional deprivation.[4]See Fuentes v. Slievin, 407 U.S. 67, 85 (1972) ("a temporary, nonfinal deprivation of property is nonetheless a 'deprivation' in the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment." (citing Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337 (1969) and Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 (1971))). The crux of the issue before the ...


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