The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 11:14 pm

Dangerous or sane, owners of seized guns get day in court

Rebecca S. Green | The Journal Gazette

Occasionally over the course of the past year or so, odd hearings pop up on the Allen County Superior Court docket.

Identified sometimes with a person’s name and always with a miscellaneous case number, the cases put a citizen and a prosecutor before a judge, usually Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull, to discuss one thing: a firearm.

To keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals, Fort Wayne police have been taking advantage of a little-used state law that allows for the seizure of guns, without a warrant, from people who are perceived to be a danger to themselves or to others.

The law, adopted in 2009 and tweaked in 2014, provides a court hearing for those who have lost their firearms in this way to make a pitch to get their guns back.

And it gives prosecutors and police an opportunity to express concern about a person’s mental stability if they are going to have access to deadly weapons.

"If they are a danger to themselves, we have to take measures to make them safe," said Fort Wayne police Capt. Tom Bandor, liaison to the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office.

Imminent risk defines dangerous

Indiana law defines dangerous people as those who present an imminent risk of injury to themselves or to someone else. It might also be applied those who pose a risk to themselves or to someone else in the future and who are mentally ill but not taking medication as prescribed by their doctor, or to those who present a documented risk of violent or unstable conduct.

It is certainly a subjective standard, one that requires the judgment of patrol officers responding to the scenes of domestic disturbances or mental health crises. It is often the FWPD’s crisis intervention team officers who make this call.

Gull praises the work of the CIT officers, particularly, in bringing calm to these incidents.

"They have been masterful, really masterful in talking people down, in making sure that things don’t escalate," she said.

When an officer determines a person to be dangerous and is made aware of the presence of a firearm, the officer can request a warrant to take the gun. But if there is not time, the officer can take the gun without a warrant, submitting then a written statement to be reviewed by a judge on whether the gun is to remain in the custody of the law enforcement agency.

The seizure of the firearm starts a civil procedure that could drag out for years if the individual wants the gun back.

Within 14 days of the seizure of a firearm without a warrant, the individual who was in possession of the gun, the officer and a prosecutor meet before a judge.

Gull, a former prosecutor, handles most of the cases in Allen County, one of the few counties in the state applying the law.

She listens to prosecutors and police present their case, and she hears from the individuals about whether they remain a danger to the community.

In some recent cases, the individuals ranged from people struggling with mental illness who threatened suicide to those who threatened to harm family members.

One older man gave up the firearm to his daughter, who was moving out of state and removed it from his home.

Another man, who lives on the city’s southeast side, said he needs firearms for his personal protection in his home. He was going to contact a lawyer to discuss his options.

If Gull believes they no longer pose a threat, she may order the gun returned to them. If there are still issues about stability, or mental health, or volatility, she orders law enforcement to keep the gun, she said.

But her overriding concern is not the gun or where it ends up.

"It is: ‘How is this person?’" Gull said. "Our worlds are intersecting at a terrible time for people. There are any number of reasons why this is all coming out."

Six months later, they do it all again

If the judge determines that a person still poses a threat of harm, the firearm remains in the custody of law enforcement. Six months later, everyone can come back for another hearing to hear whether the individual is safer – or saner.

The cycle can continue for a while.

In some instances, the gun owner surrenders the firearm during the first hearing. Sometimes, he or she calls a lawyer and comes back.

The law that created the mechanism for removing the firearms gives little in the way of help as to what shall happen at every stage of the process – or what the process means to those who might have a personal protection license allowing them to carry firearms.

"There’s not a whole lot of guidance here," Gull said. "We’re just taking the letter of the law and are trying to protect people."

Prosecutor, police and judge appear to agree that the process is working, in keeping guns out of volatile situations until cooler heads have prevailed.

"The goal here is to help identify folks we think are dangerous based on their past behavior, which is always difficult, particularly if it’s not tied to a criminal offense," Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander said.

"This is an effort to keep weapons out of the hands of people who are determined to be dangerous."

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