Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Error that led to Texas mass murder recalls recent tort claim against police after Massachusetts shooting

The Air Force yesterday admitted that it failed to pass on information about the violent record of the Texas church shooter that might have stopped him from having ready access to firearms (WaPo).  Good on the USAF, by the way, for coming clean quickly, however tragic and futile the admission is now for the 26 people who lost their lives.  That angle of the Texas story caused me to pull back up a Massachusetts Appeals Court decision that last week I filed away as "unremarkable." 

After an escalating argument in Somerville, Mass., in 2012, Santano Dessin shot Carlos Andrade "in the neck, shattering Andrade's spine and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down," the court recounted (Boston.com).  It turned out that Dessin possessed three firearms, including the one he used to shoot Andrade, and he should not have had them because of a prior juvenile delinquency adjudication.  The Somerville Police Department at one point had confiscated the three firearms from Dessin, but then returned them erroneously.  Despite subsequent notice to the department by public safety authorities and the Superior Court that Dessin remained disqualified from possessing firearms, police failed to re-confiscate them.  Andrade and family sued police for negligence under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA).

The court rejected liability under the MTCA § 10(e), which, typically of state sovereign immunity laws, disallows tort claims predicated on "any claim based upon the issuance, denial, suspension or revocation or failure or refusal to issue, deny, suspend or revoke any permit, license, certificate, approval, order or similar authorization."  The court reasoned, "A local police department's duties to receive, store, and dispose of weapons when a person's firearms license is revoked or denied 'are central to the functions that are immunized from liability by § 10(e)'" and "'cannot be parsed from the remainder of the process'" (quoting Smith v. Registrar, 66 Mass. App. Ct. 31, 33 (2006)).

Guns and Somerville, Mass., share a revolutionary history.

However routine and appropriate a construction of statute the Mass. App. decision is, it points up a policy problem that played out with tragic consequences in Texas.  Gun control opponents including the NRA routinely contend that gun control proponents' job-one should be enforcing the laws that are already on the books, rather than lobbying for new ones.  On the enforcement question, we should all be on the same page.

The merits of our unusual cultural value in gun ownership, as expressed in the Second Amendment, and the appropriate scope of reasonable regulation, may be debated.  Nevertheless, at present, we hold gun ownership as a presumptive, fundamental right.  At the same time, declining to regulate gun ownership on the front end of the transaction means that, on the back end, we must vigorously enforce properly adjudicated deprivations of the right.  Public safety--the competing fundamental right to life--requires no less.

In the area of freedom of expression, we vigorously, presumptively, and even prophylactically protect free speech.  But after proper adjudication, we allow proscription of obscenity, criminal punishment of conspiracy, and enforcement of defamation liability.  Perhaps we ought exercise greater care with prophylactic protection of Second Amendment rights, because the potential consequences of error are grave.  But that wasn't the problem in Massachusetts or Texas, where the risk of error was real and known.

The case is Andrade v. City of Somerville, No. 16-P-1407 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 30, 2017).

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