Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

People detained under Baker Act can get weapons back

TAMPA — John Judd Thomas came to the attention of law enforcement last March, when he fired six shots from a 45-caliber handgun in his Seminole Heights home.

The 76-year-old, who told police he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, said he was shooting at "rats as big as squirrels.'' He seemed "mentally unstable," officers said, telling them he "could shoot a cop with all he has been through lately."

Police held Thomas under the Baker Act, a state law that allows for the temporary detainment of someone who may be a danger to themselves or others. They took two of his guns and drove him to a mental health center in east Tampa.

On Wednesday, Thomas went to the Hillsborough Circuit courthouse to get his guns back. He had filed a petition and, according to Hillsborough County rules, needed only a judge's okay.

"I don't see any reason why they wouldn't," he told a reporter.

He was right. After a hearing that lasted about five minutes, Administrative Judge Claudia Isom said Thomas could have his guns.

Two other men who had been detained under the Baker Act also got their guns back Wednesday after quick hearings. Like Thomas, they have no felony record. None of their guns was used in a crime. None had ever been involuntarily held for mental health treatment longer than 72 hours, the maximum duration of a Baker Act detainment.

While Florida law prohibits someone who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution from buying a gun, there is no sanction for someone held less than 72 hours.

Hillsborough uses the same criteria when it comes to reclaiming guns.

It's a nuance that has drawn criticism from some since the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. And its consequences go back further. In 2011, a South Florida woman who had been held under the Baker Act twice was able to buy a gun, which she used to shoot her 75-year-old neighbor.

The decision to detain someone under the Baker Act is made by law enforcement. Before someone can be involuntarily committed for more than 72 hours, a judge must give permission.

If that happens, the person's name goes into a statewide database and is visible during background checks. That person cannot buy a gun.

But that affects only a small percentage of people held under the Baker Act.

In 2010, less than 1 percent of about 140,000 detainments led to involuntary placement in a mental health treatment facility, according to PolitiFact Florida.

Also, law enforcement does not always take guns in Baker Act cases.

For example, if someone is detained miles from their home, deputies would not go to the person's house to take guns, said Hillsborough County sheriff's attorney Jason Gordillo.

Because of that, people held under the Baker Act sometimes return to a home with guns. That happened in Thomas' case. He told the judge Wednesday that he owns five other guns that authorities did not confiscate.

When it comes to reclaiming guns, each county can approach the process differently because state law and court precedent do not outline a specific procedure.

Most require a court order, including Hillsborough.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office does not have a written policy. It handles matters on a case-by-case basis, spokesman Kevin Doll told PolitiFact Florida. He said the usual requirements for return of a gun include Baker Act hospital discharge records, a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating the person is of sound mind and is in no harm if the firearm is returned, and proof of ownership.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office also handles such matters on a case-by-case basis and sometimes requires a court order, according to Sgt. David DiSano.

In Hillsborough, if the person can legally buy a gun, the judge figures he or she can legally have one returned to them, as long as it was not used in a crime or is being held as evidence.

Judge Isom sees several people seeking their guns each month. The hearings are preceded by background checks done by the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court and the law enforcement agency that took the gun.

On Wednesday, after telling Thomas that he can retrieve his guns, Isom took a moment to admonish him.

"You need to be careful with these," she said.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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