Florida Court Finds Firearms Seizure Violated Gun Owner's Rights

Photo Courtesy of the National Shooting Sports Foundation

Personal relationships have nuance. Work relationships have nuance. What happens when “work” relationships get “personal”? More nuance. The delicate matter of balancing what is harassing versus what is normal communications between friends, collogues, contacts, etc. when what is being said is not welcomed or appealing is a true minuet. The implications and effects of temporary restraining orders, final restraining orders, “red flag” orders, and so on are vast. A recent case out of Florida highlights many of the issues of firearm confiscation based simply on a “feeling”.

I first learned about this case when I received an email from my friends over at Florida Carry. This was a standard “mass mailing” that I’m subscribed to and the message detailed the partial outcome of the following case.

Dean v. Bevis revolves around two former colleagues, or friends, for lack of a better term, that had a working relationship go south. From filing documents I learned that Dean and Bevis had a working relationship where Dean would feed Bevis, a news reporter, tips. Their relationship started in 2016 and according to the documentation ended towards the end of 2019 when Bevis attempted to file her first temporary restraining order on the grounds of harassment. That restraining order was never put into effect due to procedural issues. According to the initial brief filed by Dean’s representation, Eric J. Friday, Bevis filed for another temporary restraining order against Dean due to alleged harassment on March 30, 2020. The following day Dean was served the injunction by Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

On the date that Dean was served, Sheriffs worked literally from nine to five to confiscate his considerable collection of firearms and ammunition. There are a few problems with this and they were partially addressed in an opinion issued on June 4, 2021.

What actually happened between Dean and Bevis that lead to the filing of the initial injunction? The answer to that question can only be answered by the individuals themselves. However, from looking at the briefs in this case an interesting picture is painted, and much gets left up to interpretation. The initial brief filed on behalf of Dean states:

Petitioner claimed in her Petition and testimony that the contact by Dean toward herself was unwelcome, and that she was in fear and suffered substantial emotional distress. Her documented behavior is not congruent with her stated claims of fear, however Bevis testified that she never blocked Dean from calling or sending her messages until after she filed the first injunction. (Tr. 156 @ 13-19)9. Even then she did not block him from social media as evidenced by her receipt of messages from Dean in January. (Tr. 232 @ 19-23). She gave him daily reports on her whereabouts, and when she would be on TV.

On the contrary, the physical evidence showed that Bevis was an instigator of many of the communications with her alleged stalker. Just one example of this is the relative number and duration of phone calls between the parties, supra. (R. 272-378). Bevis testified that she first began to have concern about Mr. Dean in 2018, when he “started sending very, very lengthy emails” and that he sent them to her personal Gmail account. (Tr. 77 @ 22- 78 @ 5). Yet she continued communicating with Dean  through all of 2018 and most of 2019.

What were the exact content of these communications is not known to the public. However, the information laid out in the document shows that whatever relationship the two had continued back and forth, regardless of any misgivings Bevis may or may not have had. The actual “ground zero” of where things went south may have transpired from a conversation between the two on September 29, 2019, as chronicled in Bevis’s testimony in Dean’s initial brief:

…Bevis claimed that she did not know what Dean was talking about in emails on September 12, 2019, and did not recall if any newsworthy events that involved her happened that day, including the arrest of a high ranking police captain for the Fort Meyers Police Department that she had previously dated. (Tr. 172). When asked if she remembered having a communication with Dean where he asked if she was on a rumored sex tape with that same police captain, she responded with only “potentially”. (Tr. 172 at 22-25) When further questioned regarding the conversation, she stated that the conversation may have happened, but she did not remember it. (Tr. 173 at 1-3). However, the email demonstrating the conversation was entered into evidence (R. 427).

Now, it’s certainly conjecture that this is where things went south; however, it’s one testimony of an alleged conversation between the two noted in case documents. More details of the the relationship involved the alleged creation of a web site designed by Dean which was being dangled as a potential platform to defame Bevis. Though, through the diligent work of Dean’s representation, Friday, the patterns of communication were noted and also tell a story as noted in the “about the trial court’s ruling” section on the hearing from September of 2020:

At the conclusion of the evidence, the trial court found that Dean had committed stalking. (Tr. 356 at 16-19). The trial court went on to state that the greater number of emails or text messages from Dean to Petitioner and the length versus the brevity of who sent the message was relevant to her decision. (Tr. 356 @ 20-25). The trial court ignored the number of phone calls between the parties and the length of the calls which showed that Petitioner called Dean more times and was the initiator of the longer calls.

The evidence presented at trial showed that Dean called Petitioner approximately 100 times, while Petitioner called him over 200 times. The 100 calls from Dean to Bevis constituted approximately 200 minutes in total or an average of two minutes per call. The calls from Petitioner to Dean totaled approximately 1336 minutes for an average of over 6 minutes per call.

At the end of the day, Bevis was granted the injunction, Dean had his firearms confiscated, and that confiscation was not necessarily warranted. Despite Florida law requiring a hearing within 15 days of the temporary being issued, Dean did not get a final hearing until September 2020. In that hearing a final injunction was issued for one year starting in September.  Unlike criminal convictions Dean did not get credit for “time served”. I think it is also important to note the temporary injunction gave him 24 hours to turn in firearms. It did not, however, authorize sheriff to seize them.

Bevis admitted that at no time was Dean exhibiting violence or threatening her with any type of harm. Further, the simple granting of a temporary restraining order in the state of Florida is not grounds enough to seize firearms. In order for a seizure to be warranted actual threats of self harm or to others must be documented. Bevis failed to produce such documented evidence because there simply was none. June 4th’s opinion looks closely at the situation and is a win on one hand, although full relief has not been delivered to Dean:

In section 790.233, the legislature specifically addressed the possession of firearms or ammunition by a person who has been issued a final injunction to prevent stalking.

Thus, if a final injunction for stalking is in effect, a person may not possess firearms or ammunition, and a violation of this provision is a crime.

But neither section 790.233 nor section 784.0485 provide express statutory authority for a court to prohibit a person from possessing firearms or ammunition upon the issuance of a temporary injunction for protection against stalking. Therefore, the trial court did not have the express authority to prohibit the possession of firearms and ammunition based upon the temporary injunction.

Bevis’s allegations do not show that Dean posed a significant danger to Bevis or anyone else for personal injury based on his possession of a firearm. Under the limited allegations contained in her petition, the trial court erred by relying on the provision that it “may grant such relief as the court deems proper,” § 784.0485(5)(a), to include in the temporary stalking injunction provisions that infringed upon Dean’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms as provided for in the Florida Constitution. See Art. I, § 8, Fla. Const. Therefore, we reverse the temporary injunction to the extent that it prohibited Dean from possessing firearms and ammunition and ordered their surrender. We otherwise affirm the temporary injunction.

This case chronicles over a year long process concerning the seizure of one person’s property. In this case, a non-violent person who had their Second Amendment rights infringed upon. While the battle is not over for Dean, there are no reports of him breaking the injunction, so the issuance of a final restraining order is not likely. That does not change the fact he’s been deprived of this civil right. The opinion points out there are limitations to when and how a court may exercise their power to confiscate firearms, especially without proper cause.

I reached out to Dean’s attorney, Eric J. Friday to ask him his thoughts on the opinion:

This case shows the dangers when judges adopt an attitude of better safe than sorry and grant these temporary injunctions based on a 2 minute review of one side of the story.  It also shows how easily a law intended to protect a person from the documented dangers of an obsessed would be romantic partner, can expand to being used as a weapon of revenge.

Legislators on a federal level seek to impose national “red flag” laws. There is legislation also introduced that would strip people of their Second Amendment right should they have a temporary restraining order levied against them on a federal level. None of these proposals will do anything to actually stop a violent act. What measures like these do is tie up people that are not intent on inflicting harm and allow the laws to become weapons. Those that are intent on murdering or inflicting harm will do so regardless of a piece of paper or firearm seizure, which has been shown time after time. Murder is already illegal.