(CN) – A court must reconsider how much the government owes a woman who had to forfeit a $2.5 million collection of firearms, some of which had purportedly been stockpiled by a convicted felon planning to attack Fidel Castro, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Many of the other 1,679 guns seized from the California home of Robert and Maria Ferro are so rare that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) wants them for its museum, according the federal appeals court’s ruling.
Robert Ferro gave up his gun-owning rights in 1994 when spent time in prison for possessing explosives. Prior to his conviction, however, Ferro transferred ownership of his huge collection of firearms to his wife. In 2006, ATF agents searched the Ferro home and seized hundreds of weapons, including “87,983 rounds of ammunition, 35 machineguns, 130 silencers, three short-barreled rifles, three destructive devices, a live hand grenade, a military rocket launcher tube, five bullet-proof vests, grenade fuses, and grenade hulls,” according to the court.
Agents also found gold-plated firearms and rare guns from the early 20th century valued at $10,000 or more. The 9th Circuit’s ruling quoted an ATF agent who testified at trial that “a lot of these collectible firearms will be placed at the ATF museum, and will not be destroyed – not necessarily because of their value, but because of their rarity.”
Robert Ferro told agents that some of the weapons “were for a possible military operation [against Fidel Castro], but I believed that the mission had been aborted,” according to the ruling, which quoted Robert Ferro’s testimony at trial. (Brackets in original.) The others allegedly belonged to Maria Ferro.
A Los Angeles federal judge found the entire collection forfeitable, rejecting Maria Ferro’s innocent owner defense. The judge later granted Maria Ferro $255,000, or 10 percent of the collection, citing the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against excessive fines.
On appeal, the government argued against any payment at all, and Ferro claimed she should get more.
In a unanimous ruling Monday, a three-judge panel in Pasadena concluded that Maria Ferro was not an innocent owner.
While the innocent-owner defense generally exempts from civil forfeiture property owned by a person who had no knowledge of the alleged criminal activities, this is not the case with Maria Ferro.
“After all, there is no dispute that Maria knew of the relevant facts that constituted Robert’s commission of the crime of being a felon-in-possession,” Judge Carlos Bea wrote for the court (emphasis in original.). “That is enough knowledge to make the innocent owner defense unavailable.”
The judges said the District Court had failed to properly consider several key issues in interpreting the excessive fines clause.
“Because the District Court 1) focused solely on Robert Ferro’s conduct and did not consider Maria’s culpability, even though the punishment was actually levied on her, and 2) improperly considered Robert Ferro’s possession of contraband items for purposes of assessing the fine in this proceeding, we remand to the district court for a redetermination under the proper standard,” Bea wrote.
“Especially from our vantage point as an appellate tribunal, Maria’s culpability, if any, for enabling Robert’s illegal possession of firearms is hard to assess,” he added. “Maria knowingly allowed hundreds of collectable, and evidentially operational, firearms to be stored away in her house; they were there possessed by a felon. Moreover, even though she was the owner of hundreds of these firearms, the district court found that she ‘did not know about the vast majority of the firearms hidden in the house; she did not know how many guns were in the house nor did she know where they were located.’ Some might think this careless because some of the firearms were operable. Others, more at home with the presence of firearms, would harbor no cause for alarm. Also, Maria seems to have been quite naive: she could also be characterized as a doting wife who failed to ask any hard questions of the husband she loved and trusted, and to whom she has been married for decades. Choosing among these or possibly other scenarios is something that must be done by the district court in the first instance, since that court is in a position to make credibility determinations and has doubtless become familiar with the principals over the course of this lengthy litigation.”