A man from Deerfield Beach, Florida, faces a potential of five years in prison after being convicted for defying the state’s “red flag” law, which allows authorities to confiscate weapons from those deemed to be at high risk of committing a crime. The case is the first conviction under the state’s relatively new gun law, which was passed in part as a response to the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Since the red flag law went into effect in March 2018, Florida has seized guns from over 2,000 residents of the state. But while the state has taken thousands of weapons, it has not convicted anyone for violating the law — until this week. As reported by the Sun Sentinel, after being charged in March 2018 under the law for refusing to hand over his firearms, Jerron Smith, 33, was convicted by a Broward Circuit court this week on charges carrying as many as five years in prison.
“Smith was arrested in 2018, accused of shooting at a car driven by a friend with whom he was having an argument over a borrowed cellphone,” the outlet reports, noting that the victim was unhurt. In response, law enforcement officers issued a “risk protection order” requiring Smith to give up his weapons.
When the orders arrived at his home, Smith “did not fully understand how far his rights extended, or more significantly, how far they did not,” the Sun Sentinel reports. His defense lawyer, Jim Lewis, insists that Smith simply did not understand that the new law gave authorities the power to seize his weapons.
“He never had an opportunity to understand what was going on,” said Lewis. “He thought he had a right to have an attorney present before the order was executed.”
But prosecuting attorney Diana Chiorean maintains that Smith was clearly informed about the limits of his rights by the deputies who came to his home ordering him to hand over the weapons, an encounter, the Sun Sentinel notes, “was recorded on body cam and played back for the jury.” Chiorean also pointed out that Smith told officers unprompted that he had a concealed weapons permit, which, the prosecutor argued, demonstrates that he understands current gun laws in Florida.
Under Florida’s red flag law, once a judge approves the law enforcement-requested risk protection order, a defendant has two options: either hand the weapons over, or give them to someone else who can legally possess them and vows to keep the weapons away from the defendant.
According to a report by NPR, by August 2019, Florida courts had approved nearly 2,500 risk protection orders since the red flag law went into effect in March 2018. “That’s nearly five every day, more than any other state,” NPR noted.
An early September report by PolitiFact Florida provided more specific numbers. Between March 2018 and July 2019, Florida judges approved 2,396 risk protection orders, including 378 in Polk County, 350 in Pinellas County, 327 in Broward County, 173 in Volusia County and 127 in Miami-Dade County.
PolitiFact explains that risk protection orders “require judges to take a different outlook than they would for a typical criminal case in which a judge is evaluating past behavior,” instead asking judges to predict a person’s future behavior — or as Broward County’s chief judge Jack Tuter put it, “whether the person is going to carry out the threat.”
The fact-check site also provides some details on how risk protection orders are secured. After law enforcement determines a person poses a risk to himself or others, an officer requests an order from the judge (formatting adjusted):
A judge holds a hearing within 24 hours with the police officers who swear to the allegations. If the judge enters the temporary risk protection order, the judge will order a search of the respondent’s home to secure any firearms or ammunition. Within a couple of weeks, a judge holds a final hearing at which point a person can oppose the order. This is a civil process, so the respondent is allowed to hire a lawyer but there is no right to a court-appointed lawyer.
Tuter estimated that in 90% of the cases, the orders are agreed to by the respondent. The order can last for up to a year and then law enforcement can seek to renew it. The person’s name is also entered into the national database to prevent federal dealers from selling the person a firearm.