As the providers of the only pre-paid legal service for gun owners in New York, NY TAC DEFENSE, we are constantly monitoring the law as it pertains to gun ownership in New York. A recent Connecticut case, decided earlier in the week, is worthy of reporting since Connecticut is in the Second Circuit with New York and this case will probably be reviewed by the Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit and any decision will likely become binding law in New York. In the case of Soukaneh v. Andrzejewski, Basel Soukaneh, sued a Waterbury Police Officer who stopped his vehicle one night. The law suit was filed in the Federal district Court for the District of Connecticut. Soukaneh alleged that when he was stopped he handed the police officer his driver’s license and gun license and indicated that he was armed. The Police Officer reacted by handcuffing Mr. Soukaneh while he verified the authenticity of the gun license and while the officer searched the passenger compartment and trunk of the vehicle.
The police officer filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed. Among his arguments were that he had probable cause to believe that Basel Soukaneh was in possession of a firearm without a permit until he was able to verify the validity of the permit. Therefore, Police Officer Andzejewski thought he was justified in handcuffing and detaining Mr. Soukaneh. The Court found this conduct to constitute a de facto arrest. The Court strongly disagreed finding that since it was undisputed that the police officer found out that there was a gun in the car either at the same time or after the officer was given the license, that “no reasonable officer” could conclude that they possessed probable cause that Mr. Soukaneh was violating Connecticut law.
The Court likened the firearms license to a driver’s license and concluded that the same way it would be unconstitutional to presume that a driver’s license was invalid and to detain the driver until its validity was verified, it must be unconstitutional to presume that a firearms license was invalid and detain the gun owner until it was verified. The Court found that a contrary finding would “eviscerate Fourth Amendment protections for lawfully armed individuals.”
This decision is an important one for gun owners. this decision was not made in the context of a suppression hearing where the only sanction that the police are facing is the suppression of evidence. Rather, this ruling is in the context of a civil suit against a police officer for violating a person’s civil rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment protection to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In the context of this decision, the police officer was seeking to have the case dismissed prior to a trial and this decision indicates that the Police Department will probably have to settle the case or face a trial to determine damages.
In seeking to have the case dismissed the Police Officer claimed that he was entitled to qualified immunity. In denying the officer qualified immunity, the Judge concluded that “no reasonable officer could believe that probable cause was present.”
This decision, if affirmed on appeal, will probably cost the Waterbury Police Department money. More importantly, it will force police officers and police departments to drastically alter how they deal with lawfully armed members of the public.
May a police officer handcuff a lawfully armed citizen while he verifies the validity of a gun license? The answer is no!