Thursday, July 17, 2014

Agent's Error Regarding Plaintiff's Right to Bear Firearms was Negligent at Worst; No Relief for Civil Rights Plaintiff

Stonecipher v. Valles, 2014 WL 2937038 (7/1/14) (N.M.) (Published) - An unfavorable Franks decision in a § 1983 context. An ATF agent learned that Mr. Stonecipher might have firearms in his home. The agent also got a Missouri court document showing Mr. Stonecipher pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence offense, received a suspended sentence, which required one year of probation, and that he was discharged from probation after one year. A background check report indicated Mr. Stonecipher had been denied the right to purchase a gun due to his domestic assault conviction, but it also indicated the denial had been overturned, that he had zero convictions and that suspended sentences are not convictions when probation is completed. The agent ran all this information by an AUSA, who concluded Mr. Stonecipher was not allowed to possess firearms under § 922(g)(9). Actually the Missouri adjudication was not considered a conviction under Missouri law due to the suspended sentence and the discharge and so it did not disqualify Mr. Stonecipher from possessing firearms. The agent's affidavit for a warrant to search Mr. Stonecipher's home did not mention the sentence suspension or that the denial status, which he did mention, was later overturned. In the midst of the ensuing search, Mr. Stonecipher read to the searching agents a letter from his attorney in the Missouri case that explained that once he served his probation the adjudication would not count as a conviction. The agents continued with the search. The lead agent, after consulting with the AUSA, filed a criminal complaint in federal district court. Five days later an AUSA had the complaint dismissed.

The 10th held that the nuances of Missouri law in combination with the facts and the ATF regulations, which incorporate state definitions of conviction, were not so obvious that the agent acted recklessly in failing to recognize Mr. Stonecipher was permitted to possess firearms. It was reasonable for a non-legally trained officer to assume a conviction and sentence are two separate things. The background reports indicated Mr. Stonecipher was convicted and not convicted. The overturning of the denial status didn't necessarily mean the conviction was overturned. In sum, at worst the agent was negligent. The consultations with the AUSA and provision of all the materials to the AUSA "undercut" any notion he acted recklessly. The agents were not required to forego arresting Mr. Stonecipher after he read his attorney's letter to them. The letter was not conclusive and there was no way at that time to verify its authenticity or accuracy.