Court Rejects Qualified Immunity For Cop Who Arrested Gun Owner Carrying Valid Permit

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In a welcome win for police accountability and gun rights, a federal court rejected a Connecticut police officer’s demand for qualified immunity after he arrested a driver with a valid gun permit for his legally-owned firearm. Blocking the driver’s lawsuit and siding with the officer, Judge Janet Bond Atherton wrote in her opinion, “would eviscerate Fourth Amendment protections for lawfully armed individuals.”

One November night in 2018, Basel Soukaneh was driving through Waterbury, Connecticut when his iPhone GPS froze. To better troubleshoot, he stopped his car but kept the engine running. Unfortunately, as Judge Atherton recounted, Soukaneh had stopped in a “dark and high-crime area…well-known for prostitution, drug transactions, and other criminal activity.”

As Soukaneh was fiddling with his phone, Waterbury Police Officer Andrzejewski approached the car, knocked on the window, and demanded to see Soukaneh’s license. Soukaneh complied. He also handed the officer his gun permit and informed Andrzejewski that he did have a pistol in the driver’s side door.

From there, it escalated quickly. Andrzejewski grabbed and shoved Soukaneh out of his own car, slammed him on the ground, and threw him in handcuffs in the back of a squad car, Soukaneh recalled. The officer put his hands in Soukaneh’s pockets and said he found drugs; they were nitroglycerin pills for Soukaneh’s heart. Andrzejewski also removed—and promptly seized—$320 in cash and a flash drive containing photos and videos of Soukaneh’s deceased father he found on Soukaneh’s person.

Judge’s gavel

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While Soukaneh was in the squad car, Andrzejewski scoured Soukaneh’s entire vehicle, including the trunk. Soukaneh ultimately responded by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Andrzejewski for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. 

At oral argument, Andrzejewski claimed that his “conduct was still justified because he had probable cause to believe [Soukaneh] was possessing a firearm without a permit as he had not yet been able to verify the validity of the permit.” In other words, because Soukaneh “disclosed he had a weapon in the vehicle,” that gave him probable cause to search and seize Soukaneh. In Connecticut, carrying a pistol in a car without a permit is a Class D felony

Andrzejewski further argued that he had the authority to search Soukaneh’s car because there was an “objectively reasonable basis to suspect that [Soukaneh] was dangerous because of the known presence of his gun.”

Finally, as a fail-safe, the officer claimed that he was entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government employees from any legal liability for violating someone’s constitutional rights, so long as those rights were not “clearly established.”

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, which created qualified immunity nearly 40 years ago, determining whether a right is clearly established hinges on “whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” 

Judge Atherton made quick work of Andrzejewski’s arguments, denying qualified immunity and allowing Soukaneh’s lawsuit to continue. “There is no indication that [Soukaneh] was even arguably unlawfully possessing a firearm,” she wrote. It was an “uncontested fact” that Soukaneh “presented his pistol permit to [Andrzejewski] before or at the time he disclosed that he was in possession of a pistol.”

As a result, the judge concluded that “no reasonable officer could believe probable cause was present.” And since arresting Soukaneh was done “without probable cause, the search of [his] vehicle cannot be justified as a lawful search incident to arrest.”

Moreover, in the Second Circuit (which covers not just Connecticut but New York and Vermont as well), “an officer needs more than mere presence of a weapon for which the possessor is licensed, to justify searching a car during the course of a traffic stop.” Atherton pointed out that Soukaneh was “friendly and compliant” and freely told the officer about his gun and permit. 

“On this record, no reasonable officer could conclude that plaintiff posed a meaningful threat of being ‘armed and dangerous’ simply because he disclosed that he had a pistol and a license to possess it,” wrote Atherton. “Any contrary holding would make it practically impossible for the lawful owner of a firearm to maintain a Fourth Amendment right to privacy in his or her automobile.”

John R. Williams, who represents Soukaneh, called the opinion “thorough and obviously sound,” while Andrzejewski’s attorney declined to comment, citing pending litigation (the officer filed an appeal late last month).

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