A new law that allows police to seize guns in domestic violence cases is unlikely to make a big change in Vermont, but might ease the tension of some victims of domestic assault, according to local state’s attorneys.
The law, Act 92, which took effect Sept. 1, allows police to seize guns when a person is arrested for domestic violence when the guns may be evidence of a crime or when the gun owner has a previous conviction for a violent crime. Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault pointed out those were already reasons police would seize guns.
However, the new legislation, which was signed by Gov. Phil Scott on April 11, also said guns can be seized if they’re being held by the suspect in a domestic violence case when law enforcement investigates or if the gun is in plain sight or found during an emergency search.
The gun can also be taken to protect law enforcement, the purported victim or the domestic violence suspect.
“That’s not necessarily a drastic departure from existing power, but it does clarify and certainly provides now, I think, a good baseline in statute to look to versus officers having to try to interpret where that line is based on just case law,” Thibault said.
Rose Kennedy, state’s attorney in Rutland County, said a prosecutor could already request that a judge order the suspect’s guns confiscated.
“Just because there’s a gun in the house, doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be removed for the protection of the officer or the victim,” she said. “Potentially, it can give us a little more leeway in taking someone’s gun.”
Kennedy said the law might allow police to confiscate a gun the alleged victim said was used to threaten them in the past, even if it was not used in the specific domestic violence case being investigated.
“Oftentimes, we see in domestic violence cases that the victim is very aware that there are guns in the house, that the abuser has said in the past that he or she would use those guns if necessary on the victim,” she said.
In those cases, Act 92 might be able to provide some additional sense of security, Kennedy added.
Thibault said another important aspect of the law requires a person charged with domestic violence to be arraigned the next business day.
“As a prosecutor, I think it’s one of the most important things here. While that was already, I think, almost universal practice in the state, it makes sure that all domestic violence cases are promptly heard and brought before the court,” he said.
Because of the short turnaround time between the arrest and the beginning of the prosecution, there will be less time from when the incident occurs and the alleged victim is connected with a county’s victims’ rights advocate, Thibault said.
The advocates, in turn, can connect the victim with groups such as NewStory Center in Rutland County or Circle in Washington County.
“They’re equipped to do things that exceed the statutory authority of the victims’ rights advocates in the state’s attorneys’ offices,” Thibault said. “Our advocates really are there just to convey information and provide access to resources, not necessarily the delivery of those resources.”
Even if Act 92 is invoked, the law requires the court to return any seized weapon unless the weapon is evidence, the owner possesses the gun illegally or the court finds reason to prohibit the suspect from possessing the weapon.
Kennedy said there was a strong presumption that the gun would be returned unless the state made a strong case they should not go back to the suspect.
Thibault said the law provides a clear process for the guns to be returned, including a requirement the guns be returned within three days of a judge’s order.
“Vermont is a state that’s filled with hunters and sportsmen. It’s not uncommon for people to request exceptions to that (court order) or request those conditions be struck. … Sometimes depending on where the case is at or what the particular circumstances are, even if a condition for someone not to have firearms is imposed at arraignment, it doesn’t mean that condition necessarily makes sense or that circumstances will not have changed six months later to warrant changing that,” he said.