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Ban on Body Armor for Felons Overturned

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A California appeals court struck down as too vague a state law barring convicted felons from wearing body armor, igniting a public debate. California Attorney General Edmund Brown Jr. vowed to appeal the ruling, saying felons' possession of military-grade body armor endangers the lives of law enforcement officers and "jeopardizes public safety."

The 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed a Los Angeles Superior Court's ruling against Ethan Saleem, who was convicted of wearing a bulletproof vest despite having a previous conviction for voluntary manslaughter.

In 2007, Los Angeles police pulled over a car Saleem was riding in, and he pulled on a bulletproof vest before stepping out of the car.

The appeals court said the state law making it illegal for felons to possess body armor was too vague. The law's technical definition of body armor "failed to provide fair notice that his body vest was illegal," Justice Joan Dempsey Klein wrote.

The disputed law defines body armor using technical bullet resistance specifications, deeming a bulletproof vest illegal if it has the same characteristics of the vests sold to state peace officers.

"[O]nly an expert would know if any particular protective body vest was proscribed by [the statute]," Klein wrote. "And, if that is so, then we do not see how, without providing something like an official list of prohibited vests, the statute can be said to provide either fair notice to a defendant or meaningful guidelines to the officer on the street" (original emphasis).

Even if Saleem had read the law, the court added, he may not have known that his vest was illegal, because the vest he was wearing said "this vest does not protect you against small arms fire," which an ordinary person would think included handguns.

"This failure to provide fair notice is exactly what offends due process," Klein wrote. "Hence, we conclude [the statute] violates the void for vagueness doctrine and that Saleem's conviction must be reversed."

Dissenting Justice Richard Aldrich said the law was not vague at all. Aldrich said the first part of the law's body armor definition, which states, "'Body armor is popularly called a 'bulletproof vest,'" is enough to affirm Saleem's conviction.

The second sentence, which states, "'body armor' means those parts of a complete armor that provide ballistic resistance to the penetration of the test ammunition for which a complete armor is certified," only serves to clarify the definition, Aldrich said.

"If a violent felon chooses to possess an item that appears to be body armor, and the people prove that the garment is body armor, i.e., withstands penetration by the relevant test ammunition, then there is no reason why the conviction should not stand," Aldrich wrote.

Attorney General Brown said his office will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

"Every day, California's law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to protect our communities," Brown said in a statement. "Allowing violent felons to possess military grade body armor puts their lives further at risk and jeopardizes public safety."

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