Guns of Contention: If Philly says no, Florida can say yes

From left, Kenneth Sharper, John Solomon, Richard Oliver and Jamell Gaines. All had guns taken by police and have not gotten them back. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff)
From left, Kenneth Sharper, John Solomon, Richard Oliver and Jamell Gaines. All had guns taken by police and have not gotten them back. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff) (Lissa Atkins)
Posted: August 31, 2010

In the last two years, Philadelphia police have confiscated guns from at least nine men - including four security guards - who were carrying them legally, and only one of the guns has been returned, according to interviews with the men.

Eight of the men said that they were detained by police - two for 18 hours each. Two were hospitalized for diabetic issues while in custody, one of whom was handcuffed to a bed. Charges were filed against three of the men, only to be withdrawn by the District Attorney's Office.

The civil-rights unit of the City Solicitor's Office confirmed that it is handling eight such cases. Two of the men interviewed by the Daily News said that they rejected settlement offers from the city ranging from $3,500 to $7,500. One accepted a $5,000 offer.

Most of the cases hinge on what local authorities call the "Florida loophole," under which a Pennsylvania resident can obtain a nonresident permit to carry a concealed weapon through the mail from another state, even without a permit in Pennsylvania.

The "loophole" is unpopular with Philadelphia cops, who say that it allows those denied a permit here or whose permits were revoked to circumvent Philadelphia authorities and obtain it elsewhere.

But proponents say that it's necessary because Philadelphia has unusually strict criteria for obtaining a concealed-carry permit. Philadelphia, according to police and gun owners, relies heavily on a clause that allows denial of a permit based on "character and reputation" alone.

The men interviewed by the Daily News had varying reasons for seeking nonresident permits from Florida or other states, including having been denied a Philadelphia permit because of unpaid parking tickets. Some said that they carry a Florida permit because it is recognized by more states than a Pennsylvania one.

Two of the security guards said that they were on the job when their guns were taken, and that they were holding licenses issued by the state police to security officers under Pennsylvania Act 235, the Lethal Weapons Training Act.

Despite following the law, all of the men said that they were treated like criminals by city cops who either ignored their rights or didn't know the laws.

Lt. Fran Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner, acknowledged that some city cops apparently are unfamiliar with some concealed-carry permits. But he said that it's better for cops to "err on the side of caution."

"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second," Healy said.

Both Healy and Craig Straw, chief deputy city solicitor with the civil-rights unit, said that they could not speak to individual cases because of pending litigation, but said that the main issue with Florida permits is that officers on the street are not able to check the validity of a permit 24 hours a day.

"There's a lot of bad guys out there," Healy said. "I want to use my time on them and not waste it on this nonsense."

9 SEPARATE INCIDENTS

The nine men learned about each other because one of them, Richard Oliver, teaches safety courses required for nonresident permits from other states but not required by Pennsylvania.

In interviews with the Daily News, each said that Philadelphia police had confiscated guns that they had been legally carrying.

-- Oliver, 42, of Northeast Philadelphia: Last year, Oliver, who had nonresident permits from three states and an Act 235 license, was driving to his job as a security guard when police pulled over his car for allegedly running a stop sign in West Philadelphia. He said that police did not honor any of his permits and held him in custody for 18 hours, forcing him to stand outside for four hours in winter and denying him his diabetes medication.

His ordeal eventually landed him in Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, at 54th Street and Larchwood Avenue, in West Philadelphia, before he was booked on firearms charges and held on $15,000 bail, according to court records. In less than a month, his case was withdrawn by the District Attorney's Office, and a week later his gun was returned on a judge's order.

Later, Oliver obtained a Philadelphia permit to carry. As owner of the Parapet Group, a protection-and-security company, Oliver continues to teach the safety courses.

Although the charges were withdrawn, they're still visible on Oliver's online court record. He said that the city offered him a $7,500 settlement, which he rejected.

"If ignorance of the law is not an excuse for a citizen," said Oliver, "it cannot be an excuse for law enforcement who are sworn to enforce the law."

-- Randy Huggins, 39, of West Philadelphia: On Election Day in November 2008, Huggins, who had just finished clerking at the polls at 64th and Callowhill streets, went to his mother's house to get his gun after the polls closed. He was stopped with the gun and questioned by police who overheard him on his phone trying to quell a family member's fears that he'd been the victim of a murder, he said.

Huggins said that police did not honor either of his nonresident permits and that he subsequently spent 14 hours in custody. Huggins, a diabetic, said that he was handcuffed to a bed at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Center City, after his blood pressure skyrocketed. He said that he then was interrogated by homicide detectives for hours before he was released without being charged with a crime. Despite numerous attempts, Huggins said, he was unable to retrieve either his gun or his permits.

He said that the city offered him a $3,500 settlement, which he rejected.

-- Jameel Gaines, 32, of Oxford Circle: In April, Gaines, who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Philadelphia, and is an Act 235 agent, was working security at the Comfort Zone Lounge, in West Philadelphia, when cops raided the bar.

Gaines, who was in uniform, said that police took his handgun from his holster and took a shotgun he'd hidden behind the bar. After the raid, Gaines said, cops returned his handgun but told him that they were keeping his shotgun. He was never arrested or charged with a gun crime. He still has both his Philadelphia permit and his Act 235 license, but the shotgun has not been returned.

"This is the first time I had negative issues with the Philadelphia Police Department," said Gaines, adding that as a security guard he has turned over numerous illegal weapons to police.

-- Samuel Tiru, 28, of North Philadelphia: During a car stop in 2008 in North Philadelphia, Tiru said, an officer referred to his Florida gun permit as "baloney." He said that he subsequently was taken into custody, held for 18 hours and booked on firearms charges.

The case later was withdrawn by the District Attorney's Office, according to court records, but Tiru said that he has been unable to get his gun back and that police told him that they couldn't find his property receipt.

"It's not fun to sit in jail for something you didn't do wrong," Tiru said. "It wasn't a good experience knowing that you got booked for having a gun permit."

-- John Solomon, 24, of Germantown: Solomon, who has both a Florida gun permit and an Act 235 license, said that cops did not honor either document during a car stop in 2008. He said that he was taken into custody for six hours but was never charged with a crime. Solomon said that he was unable to get his gun back and was not given a property receipt.

-- Frank Walker, 37, of West Philadelphia: Walker said that police did not honor his Virginia nonresident gun permit when they stopped his car in July in West Philadelphia. He said that he was held in custody for four hours, then was let go without being charged with a crime. Walker said that although a supervisor apologized to him, he was told that his weapon wouldn't be returned because the police "already went through the paperwork of writing it up."

"I feel as though I've been robbed, because if I go out there and I take something from somebody, I'm going to jail," he said. "But I want to know why they can just take my gun for no reason."

-- Ron Frierson, 57, of Wynnefield: In 2009, Frierson, who was carrying a concealed weapon using a Florida permit, was pulled over for driving under the influence in West Philadelphia. He later was charged and opted into a first-time-offenders program for possession of marijuana and DUI, according to court records. He was not charged with a gun crime.

Frierson said that he was not able to get his weapon back or get a property receipt. He said that he signed off on a $5,000 settlement from the city, but has not received the money.

-- Ras-Tesfa Ferguson, 27, of Wyncote, Montgomery County: Ferguson, who has a Montgomery County gun permit and permits from Florida and New Hampshire, said that in 2008 he was outside a house in the Lawncrest section of Northeast Philadelphia when police descended on the block. He said that cops did not honor any of his permits and charged him with possessing firearms not to be carried without a license and related gun crimes. Online court records show that Ferguson also was charged with burglary and simple assault in the case, but that all charges later were withdrawn.

Ferguson said that his gun and permits were confiscated. He said that he never got his gun back, although he was able to get his Montgomery County permit renewed. "Montgomery County is used to gun permits," he said. "Philadelphia acts like you broke the law."

-- Kenneth Sharper, 29, of North Philadelphia: Sharper, who has an Act 235 license and a Philadelphia gun permit, said that he was working security in 2008 at the Players Club, in Northeast Philadelphia, when he and a police officer "had words, like two grown men."

After closing time, Sharper said, police arrested him for disorderly conduct and public intoxication and took him into custody. Sharper said that he never drinks at work and that cops refused to give him a sobriety or blood test. He said that he was held for eight hours and that police took his gun and his Philadelphia permit and have not returned them.

He now carries a Florida nonresident permit and still has a valid Act 235 license.

'THESE GUYS AREN'T THUGS'

Many of the men whose guns were taken said that they were told to write a letter to the police commissioner to seek the return of their firearm. Two of the men wrote letters but said that they received no response.

Guy Sciolla, a defense lawyer whose firm is handling at least 10 such civil suits, said that the men should not have been "separated from their legally possessed firearms."

Sciolla said that even though some officers may not like the "loophole," their disdain for the law should not allow them to circumvent it.

"These guys aren't thugs, they're going about their business, going to work, and they've complied with the law," he said of the men whose guns were confiscated.

"If the bottom line is the police are upset because they are going around them, it's OK if they want to take it personally, but you can't use arrest powers because you're upset on a personal level."

Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's Philadelphia office, said that the cases seem "pretty outrageous."

"This idea of taking people's guns who are carrying them legally and arresting them is absurd," she said. "The police don't get to decide what is a crime - they only get to enforce what is a crime.

"They are simply acting as vigilantes here and deciding they know better than the law."

Straw, of the City Solicitor's Office civil-rights unit, said that his department is handling about eight such cases of "constitutional claims that civil rights were violated by us taking their property and by them being falsely arrested."

Healy, the special adviser to the police commissioner, said that he is working on uniform guidelines for officers on the street on how to handle nonresident gun permits.

Meanwhile, Roper said that citizens should remain wary of police who arrest people complying with the law and take their property, even if it is a gun.

"The public may be saying, 'You're getting guns off the street,' " Roper said.

"But there's got to come a point where you want your police, of all people, to respect the law.

"This isn't technical, it's fundamental."

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