More concerns raised about gun seizures by state agents

More concerns raised about gun seizures by state agents »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — More reports have surfaced of weapons being seized from local gun owners under a special state program.

A Bakersfield attorney said he's represented about six clients in the past couple years, and he had to prove they really could keep their guns.

A state spokesman responded that the program has few errors and works to keep Californians safe.

Attorney Loren Kleier said his clients had weapons seized by agents with the state Department of Justice. As Eyewitness News has reported, a special unit from the Bureau of Firearms has the job of cross-checking lists of gun owners against databases showing those who legally can't have weapons.

"To me, they're becoming jack-booted thugs that are kicking in doors," Kleier told Eyewitness News on Thursday.

He said he worries about gun rights and that mistakes are being made.

Eyewitness News reached out to the Department of Justice on Thursday, and by evening got an email statement from a spokesman: "APPS handles thousands of cases each year with minimal errors, while working to keep communities across California safe by keeping guns away from individuals that can pose a danger to the public," DOJ spokesman David Beltran stated. "The bottom line is that this is a program about public safety and in no way about taking guns away from law abiding Californians."

A state law, SB 950, set up the Armed and Prohibited Persons System in 2001.

"APPS cross-references five databases to find people who legally purchased handguns and registered assault weapons since 1996 with those prohibited from owning or possessing firearms," reads a fact sheet from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.

"A person becomes prohibited if he or she is convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, is placed under a domestic violence restraining order or is determined to be mentally unstable," according to an AG's office statement.

Kleier said some of his clients apparently had guns seized because the agents said they had felony convictions, but he said they really didn't.

"When they arrested you and booked you, they might book you under a felony, but then the case goes to the district attorney, and the district attorney decided how they're going charge it -- and they only charge it as a misdemeanor," Kleier gives as an example.

He said two of his clients were arrested on felony charges, and the cases were later prosecuted as misdemeanors. A third case was an arrest on a felony that was not charged at all, Kleier said. The attorney said he then has to prove there was no felony charge.

In another case, Kleier said a client originally had a sexual battery charge in 2003, but he then plead guilty to "simple battery." But, Kleier says then the man got a court order to exclude a gun prohibition.

The attorney said nine years after that, the man was visited by the DOJ officers. He says the family had paperwork showing the final court record.

"Here's the order from the judge, here's the order on the appeal that he can have guns," Kleier said the client told the agents. "They said they didn't care." The lawyer says he worked with attorneys at the DOJ, got that cleared up, and the man got his guns back.

Kleier said he also knows of guns seized because there was a mistake in court records. "The clerk at the superior court had entered the wrong code when the report went to the Department of Justice," he relates.

In November, Mike Merritt said agents took 18 guns from him. He says they had information showing he had a felony charge from 1970. Merritt said that was a mistake, it was a "pot possession," which had later been dropped to a misdemeanor.

An assistant chief with the Bureau of Firearms told Eyewitness News the APPS agents had worked from court records that had not been updated. After the guns were taken, the officers kept checking and discovered that. Then Merritt's guns were returned a couple weeks later, his criminal history was corrected, and he was taken off the APPS list.

The spokesman couldn't give hard numbers on how many times guns are returned, but said situations like Merritt's are rare.

Kleier thinks gun owners pop into the APPS list when they start the process to buy a firearm and get the required background check.

"Typically what triggers it, is you went out, tried to buy a firearm and were denied," Kleier said . "And then sometime thereafter you'll get a knock on the door."

The spokesman with the Bureau of Firearms said the APPS program has positive effects. He said it's keeping people in California safe, and it's taking guns from people in the middle of mental illness.

The assistant chief also said California is the only state with a program like this.

But, Kleier has concerns.

"This is over-reach by the government," Kleier said. "This is going beyond, I believe, what they're legally entitled to do."

A state spokesman told Eyewitness News they could not respond to Kleier's concerns without researching the specific cases he points to. Kleier said he would not provide his clients' names, because he didn't want them to face any retribution.

The attorney thinks there have been more gun seizures after the shooting at Sandy Hook School in December 2012 in the community of Newtown, Connecticut where 26 people were killed. And, after the passage of SB 140 last year that authorized an additional $24 million to fund the APPS program.

Kleier worries about guns taken when they should not be. He said there's a right to own guns.

"People forget it's a fundamental right, it's as fundamental as your right to religion," he said of gun ownership. "People don't hold it, or believe it's in the same category of rights, when it is."