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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Side With Cops On New Jersey Gun Seizure

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - New Jersey police were correct in seizing dozens of firearms from a gun collector after they searched his house in connection with a protective order entered against his wife, a state appeals court ruled.

The Cumberland County firearms enthusiast, identified in court documents as C.L.H., had a mini-arsenal consisting of 76 firearms in his home, including an imported AK-47 rifle, an Uzi semi-automatic, a Bushmaster assault rifle with a flash suppressor, a FN-FAL semi-automatic, and a Winchester .22 rifle with a fixed tubular magazine.

The guns were found after a temporary restraining order was entered against C.L.H.'s wife in April 2013, arising from a domestic violence complaint brought against her by her 81-year-old father.

Because the women's father noted the existence of at least some firearms in her house, the temporary restraining order included a warrant directing law enforcement to search for and seize those weapons.

Although C.L.H. had nothing whatsoever to do with the incident or the restraining order because he lived with his wife at the address specified in the warrant, sheriff's officers were authorized to seize his weapons for safekeeping pursuant the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.

In an opinion written by Judge Allison Accurso on behalf of the panel, the court noted that C.L.H. cooperated with the police when they arrived at his home,

handing over his firearms purchaser identification card and informing them he had several weapons in locked gun safes.

Police searched the residence and grounds, finding four bows, a machete, four handguns, and 72 long guns. A ballistics check by police determined that four of the seized guns were assault firearms, ownership of which has been banned in New Jersey since 1990.

After the local sheriff discovered the five assault rifles, C.L.H. claimed he had no paperwork for the guns because a "vindictive ex-wife" destroyed the records 15 years ago, according to court documents.

Even though C.L.H. was not involved in the alleged domestic abuse incident, had no criminal history or history of drug or alcohol abuse, and the domestic assault charges against his wife were eventually dropped, all of the guns were seized.

The Cumberland County prosecutor's office sent eight of the guns seized to the state police for testing and filed a timely petition for forfeiture in May. A detective in the ballistics unit testified that five of those guns, all of which were operable, qualified as assault firearms under state law.

C.L.H. challenged the seizure, and a lower court ruled that he was no danger to the community and that under a 2013 gun amnesty, he should be allowed to keep his collection.

"There is no 'fault' or other inappropriate, unlawful, or bad behavior of C.L.H., [and] the guns were seized solely because of a restraining order issued against a person he resided with, his wife," the Cumberland County Superior Court ruled.

But the Appellate Division disagreed, arguing in Wednesday's ruling that the 2013 gun amnesty law required a gun owner to turn over illegal weapons before any other charges or complaints had been filed. In C.L.H.'s case, a domestic abuse complaint had been filed before he had turned in any guns, rendering the amnesty law moot.

"We have no quarrel with the trial judge's factual findings," Accurso wrote. "Our disagreement is with the court's legal conclusions., to which we owe no deference under our plenary standard of review."

New Jersey had conducted nearly a dozen gun buyback events from 1997 through 2010, during which citizens owning illegal firearms were granted amnesty for turning in their weapons, in some cases in exchange for money.

Even without the amnesty law, the guns - particularly the assault weapons - should not have been returned to C.L.H., Accurso continued. "Those [assault] weapons are contraband and can never lawfully be returned to C.L.H.," she wrote.

Accurso added that C.L.H. also rightfully lost his firearms purchaser ID because, as a firearms enthusiast, he should have known the five assault rifles were illegal. That fact disqualified C.L.H. from a purchaser ID card, even though he posed no direct threat to society.

"The court lost sight of the fact that was critical - that C.L.H. was in possession of five fully functioning assault rifles," Accurso wrote. "The knowing possession of an unlicensed, operable assault firearm is a crime of the second degree."

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