Court Reloads Fight Over Massive Illegal Gun Cache

     (CN) — A woman whose husband stockpiled more than 1,600 guns with plans to battle Fidel Castro’s Cuban government faced an excessive forfeiture order, the Ninth Circuit ruled.
     Robert Ferro lost the right to own a firearm when he went to prison in 1994 for possession of explosives.
     Unwilling to say goodbye to the enormous cache of weapons he had amassed over the years, however, Ferro transferred possession of the collection to his wife, Maria.
     The jig was up in 2006 when federal agents raided the Ferro home and seized 1,679 guns and 87,893 rounds of ammunition. They also took control of a live hand grenade, a rocket launcher tube and three destructive devices.
     At the forfeiture trial, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms testified that some of the guns were so rare that they would be kept in the ATF museum instead of being destroyed.
     These rare pieces included gold-plated firearms and weapons from the early 20th century. Robert Ferro testified that some of the arms were intended for a “possible military operation against Castro.”
     While the court was no longer going to let Maria keep any of her husband’s weapons, it found that she did deserve some compensation for the loss of property. Just how much has been the focus of years worth of litigation in California.
     After the Ninth Circuit chucked the first analysis in 2012, a federal judge said Maria deserved $510,000 in reimbursement — just 20 percent of the collection’s $2.55 million value.
     The court said 80 percent forfeiture was not an unconstitutionally excessive, prompting dueling appeals by Maria and the government.
     The Ninth Circuit chucked the remission order again on Aug. 19, this time in an unpublished opinion.
     “To reiterate what we said before, the focus of the excessiveness analysis must be on Maria’s culpability for the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture, because the forfeiture will punish her, and only her,” the unsigned ruling by a three-judge panel states.
     While percentages are common in measuring the relative responsibility of multiple parties to a crime, the judges said it is not as simple when determining what level of remission is required to avoid a unconstitutionally excessive fine.
     “To state the obvious,” the ruling says, “all else being equal, an 80% forfeiture of property worth $2.55 million would be far more punitive than an 80% forfeiture of property worth $255,000. Also, while it is tempting to consider the wealth of the individual to be fined in assessing the proper fine — because to be a deterrent, the fine must ‘sting’ that factor alone cannot be considered as determinative. A billionaire who drove his car imprudently, but caused no accident, should get a significant fine, but even were there no statutory limits, he should not be fined millions. Also, they disagreed with the government’s argument that Mrs. Ferro was not entitled to a finding of excessiveness because the trial court stated that she ‘acted with willful blindness.'”
     While Maria knew her husband was a felon who possessed weapons, the judges noted that “what Maria apparently lacked was an appreciation of the legal consequences of those facts — that is, that Robert could not legally possess the firearms account his status as a felon.”

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