Ninth Circuit: LAPD Officer Can Be Sued For Destroying Gun Collection

A former police officer in Glendale, California has been given the green light in his quest to sue the city of Los Angeles as well as individual police officers who melted down hundreds of firearms from his private collection after they were seized in a criminal investigation.

On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wayne Wright, the former Glendale officer, has standing to pursue his civil case against the city and Detective James Edwards, who back in 2004 obtained a court order to destroy more than 300 guns from Wright’s collection.

The opinion by Judge Richard A. Paez reverses, in part, a summary judgment granted by District Court Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California, who died in 2019. Real determined in a Dec 19, 2018 order that gun owner Wayne Wright’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were not abridged because he had no entitlement to notice by the Los Angeles Police Department that it had sought and obtained a Los Angeles Superior Court order for the destruction of his property.

Real determined that individuals named in Wright’s suit—including Detective James Edwards who obtained the order—were entitled to qualified immunity because they had acted within the law and according to department policy.

Paez said in his opinion:

“We have no problem concluding that a rational trier of fact could find a due process violation under these circumstances. The wealth of precedent suggests that by failing to provide Wright with notice and the opportunity to be heard before the court issued the destruction order. Edwards denied Wright the most basic and fundamental guarantees of due process.”

After Wright’s home was raided by police in 2004, he ended up pleading guilty to a single count of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, which a judge later reduced to a misdemeanor offense. Even after the case was resolved in court, however, the LAPD maintained possession of Wright’s gun collection. Eventually about 80 firearms were returned to Wright, but Det. James Edwards obtained an ex parte order in 2013 (nearly a decade after the guns had been seized) to melt down and destroy the remaining guns in the LAPD’s possession.

The opinion by Judge Paez notes that Wright and the city were in discussions about the return of his firearm collection when Edwards obtained the order allowing him to destroy the guns, and said that the subsequent smelting of the guns “constituted a permanent deprivation” of his civil rights.

Qualified immunity was unavailable, Paez said, because the wrongfulness of Edwards’s conduct was “clearly established,” pointing out:

 “[W]e have no doubt that Edwards had fair notice that his conduct violated Wrights due process right to notice. Although ‘due process’ has been castigated as ‘cryptic’ and ‘abstract.’ its balustrades have been identified, time and again, as notice and an opportunity to be heard…California courts have for decades observed this straightforward rule, which adds to our confidence that the law was clearly established.”

He added:

“We are further convinced that the obligation to provide notice was clearly established given that Edwards was seeking ex parte permission to destroythe firearms—a permanent kind of deprivation.”

The unanimous three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit also rejected claims of qualified immunity for former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and City Attorney Mike Feuer. In his opinion, Paez argued that both Beck and Feuer were suited in their official capacities, while qualified immunity only applies to officials who are sued as individuals.

This is a surprisingly strong decision by the Ninth Circuit. Not only did the three-judge panel unanimously overturn the decision of U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, it places the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms on equal footing with the rest of our civil rights. That’s as it should be, of course, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to see coming out of the Ninth Circuit, long considered to be one of the most hostile appellate courts when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms.

Wright is seeking $4.8-million from the city and the officials named in his lawsuit, and thanks to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, the legal challenge over the destruction of an impressive gun collection can now proceed. Hopefully Wright finds some justice, but there’s simply no way to replace the hundreds of firearms destroyed by the overzealous anti-gun officials in Los Angeles.

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