County Should Have Returned Firearms Despite Gap In State Law

In Dudek v. Nassau County Sheriff’s Department, 12 CV 1193 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2013), Judge Pamela Chen was called upon to resolve what one state court had called a “legislative oversight”:  family court judges have statutory authority to confiscate firearms from individuals involved in domestic incidents, but do not have explicit statutory authority to order their return.  As a result, when plaintiff, who had been involved in a domestic incident resulting in the confiscation of his firearms, asked the Nassau County Sheriff to return his weapons after his wife withdrew the petition, the sheriff refused to do so without a court order.  Plaintiff filed suit seeking declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief.

Faced with defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Court ruled that the apparent legislative oversight did not divest the sheriff’s department, or the New York Supreme Court, of authority to return the firearms.  While permitting claims to go forward against Nassau County and particular officers who were personally involved with plaintiff, it dismissed claims against certain subordinate officers whose personal involvement was not apparent from the record and against the sheriff’s department, which was merely an arm of the County.

The non-dismissed officers were deemed to have qualified immunity, however, because their conduct did not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The Court held it was “incorrect, but not unreasonable” for the officers to have believed that they could not return the weapons absent a court order.  This ruling immunized the officers from monetary claims.  In sum, Judge Chen declined to dismiss declaratory and injunctive claims against the individual officers and allowed discovery on the Monell claim against the County, which was subject to claims for monetary damages.