Jury: Cops didn't jump the gun in car search

Posted: October 31, 2011

WILLIAM LAWLER is convinced that his civil rights were violated during a car stop in which police confiscated his legally owned gun and his permit to carry a concealed weapon.

On Friday, a federal jury was convinced otherwise.

It was a quick midday run to the post office in April 2008 that landed Lawler, an 11-year Army veteran and social-studies teacher, in the back of a police cruiser in handcuffs.

The traffic violation for which he was stopped in Northeast Philadelphia was later dismissed. But cops said that the politically charged bumper stickers on the back of his station wagon, including "Fear the government that fears your gun," led them to ask if he had a gun - which he did - and if he had a permit to carry it - which he did.

"The back of my car is pretty much a billboard for who I am. I'm a political animal," Lawler said in court last week. "This is a legal, peaceful way for me to express my views."

But Lawler was ordered out of his car. Cops searched him and the vehicle, and took his legally owned permit and his 9mm Glock-17. They drove him to the 8th Police District, but never arrested him or charged him with a crime.

One police officer testified last week that Lawler's "agitated and upset" demeanor led cops to handcuff him. Still, cops said that Lawler never threatened them and followed all instructions. The only statements one officer even remembered Lawler saying had to do with his constitutional rights. Police said that they took his gun and permit because he had not voluntarily informed them that he was carrying a gun.

"I stood up for myself, yes," Lawler testified. "Was I a raving madman? Not by any long shot."

Still, it took Lawler 689 days, $2,000 in lawyer's fees and a judge's order just to get his permit and his $800 gun back.

Then he took his complaints to federal court, suing the city and the four police officers he claims were involved in the stop, for violating his First and Fourth amendment rights.

He stuck to his guns, turning down a $25,000 offer from the city to settle his claims. He said that he wanted to challenge what he believes is the practice of the Police Department to harass legal gun owners.

"I don't want it to happen to me again, or anyone else," Lawler said.

But after a three-day trial last week, which included testimony from Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a jury deliberated less than two hours Friday before shooting down Lawler's claims.

Amanda Shoffel, assistant city solicitor, said the case was about how "with rights come responsibilities."

She told the jury that Lawler had a "distrust for authority" and that he'd been "kicked out" of the Police Academy in 2003. Lawler said he'd been dismissed from the academy "at the commissioner's discretion," but did not elaborate.

Lawler's attorney, James Lee, vowed to appeal the case.

"I'm flabbergasted. I don't know what this jury was thinking," Lee said. "This is not over."

Lawler won a "minor victory," his attorney said afterward, when Ramsey admitted in court that certain language in an official letter routinely given to concealed-weapons-permit holders should be "softened" because it could be misinterpreted. The Police Department letter says that, during a car stop, legal gun-holders "MUST" inform police "IMMEDIATELY" if they are armed - a requirement that is not law under the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act.

Lawler's First Amendment claim arose from police officers' testimony that a routine car stop had become something more because of the views espoused on his bumper stickers.

Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney with the Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU, said that's troubling.

"You don't want the police, under any circumstances, making decisions that someone is dangerous because of his beliefs," Roper told the Daily News.

"If the danger is that he has a strong interest in social and political issues, if that's a sign of danger, we're in a lot of trouble."

Lawler's Fourth Amendment claim against unlawful search and seizure arose because, he said, cops had no reason to search his body or his car.

Roper said that if Lawler admitted to carrying a licensed firearm, then the police were justified in frisking him and conducting a limited vehicle search to see if he had more guns.

During closing arguments, Shoffel said that Lawler's "completely irresponsible" behavior during the stop had led to his detention.

"The plaintiff's best exhibit was his soapbox," Shoffel said in court. "He says, 'They were looking for a reason to take my gun.' They didn't have to look for a reason. The reason was him. It was the way he was acting."

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