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Ronnie Walters v. Carl Wolf; City of Hazelwood

November 4, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: June 15, 2011

Before MURPHY and SMITH, Circuit Judges, and READE, District Judge.*fn1

Ronnie Walters brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the City of Hazelwood, Missouri, ("the City") and Hazelwood Chief of Police Carl Wolf, alleging that they (1) deprived him of his property, namely a handgun and its ammunition, without due process of law, in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (2) through the same conduct, violated his right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. The district court granted the City and Chief Wolf's joint motion for summary judgment on both of Walters's claims, reasoning that both defendants accorded Walters all the process to which he was entitled in the form of a post-deprivation state court replevin action and that the Second Amendment confers a right only to keep and bear arms generally, not a right to possess a particular firearm. For the reasons that follow, we reverse in part and remand for further proceedings. Specifically, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment to the City and Chief Wolf on Walters's procedural due-process claim.

I. Background

This appeal involves purely legal questions, and the underlying facts are largely undisputed. Still, "[s]ince this case is before us on summary judgment, we recite the facts in the light most favorable to [Walters], the non-moving party." Ruminer v. Gen. Motors Corp., 483 F.3d 561, 562 (8th Cir. 2007).

Walters is a resident of St. Louis County, Missouri. The City is a municipal corporation located in St. Louis County, Missouri, and Chief Wolf is the Hazelwood Chief of Police. On February 11, 2007, Hazelwood Police Officer Joshua Mitchell noticed that a 2006 Dodge Charger lacked the front license plate that Missouri law required for all vehicles. Officer Mitchell stopped Walters's vehicle for the violation. An ensuing computerized records check revealed an outstanding warrant for Walters's arrest in St. Louis County. Officer Mitchell promptly arrested Walters and asked Walters if he had any weapons or illegal narcotics in the vehicle. Walters disclosed that, in fact, he had a gun stowed in the vehicle's center console. Officer Mitchell retrieved the weapon, a loaded 9mm Ruger pistol with one round in the chamber and six additional rounds in the magazine. Officer Mitchell advised Walters that he was also under arrest for unlawful use of a weapon because he was a fugitive from St. Louis County. The authorities never issued Walters a receipt or any other written notice documenting the gun's seizure.

Walters alleges, and neither the City nor Chief Wolf dispute, that (1) he legally purchased the handgun in 2000 from a licensed firearms dealer, (2) the handgun was properly registered under Missouri law in his name, and (3) Walters holds a valid permit to conceal and carry the handgun on his person in the State of Missouri. On April 18, 2007, Walters, through his attorney, made his first written demand in the form of a letter to the City's police department that the handgun and ammunition be returned. Receiving no response to this initial overture, on May 1, 2007, Walters mailed a second letter through his attorney, this time to Chief Wolf directly, again requesting the handgun's and ammunition's return.

On May 16, 2007, after Walters made his second written demand for return of the handgun and ammunition, the Circuit Court of St. Louis County ("St. Louis Circuit Court") issued a complaint against Walters for the class C felony of unlawful possession of a concealable firearm. On October 22, 2007, the St. Louis Circuit Court held a preliminary hearing. The St. Louis Circuit Court found no probable cause to believe that Walters committed the crime. On October 23, 2007, the St. Louis Circuit Court dismissed the criminal charge accordingly.

Nothing occurred from October 23, 2007, the date of the St. Louis Circuit Court's dismissal of the unlawful possession charge, until June 12, 2009, when Walters sent a third letter through his counsel to Chief Wolf requesting return of the handgun. On June 18, 2009, Chief Wolf responded to Walters's June 12 letter, in pertinent part, as follows:

I am in receipt of your letter dated June 12, 2009, requesting the voluntary return of a firearm (9mm Ruger) which was seized by the Hazelwood Police Department.

Mr. Fenlon [(Walters's counsel)], it is my understanding that Mr. Walters has an active warrant through the City of Edmundson. Until we are notified that this matter has been cleared up the gun will not be returned. In order for the gun to be returned to Mr. Walters we will require a Writ of Replevin.

According to Chief Wolf's admissions in his responses to Walters's subsequent interrogatories, as of October 2009, the City of Edmundson's warrant was no longer active "because, upon information and belief, . . . [Walters] appeared and pleaded guilty to the charges." Notwithstanding the warrant's removal however, Chief Wolf persisted in his refusal to release Walters's handgun, citing in his interrogatory response that the City maintained a policy "requir[ing] a Court Order before returning a lawfully confiscated firearm." The City echoed Chief Wolf's statements by affirming that its policy is that "[d]ecisions about the return of firearms that are lawfully seized by the Hazelwood Police Department are made by Chief Wolf and are subject to orders of the Court as to whether a firearm should be returned to a person who claims to be the owner of the firearm."

On July 22, 2009, prior to the October 2009 dismissal of the City of Edmundson's warrant for Walter's arrest, Walters filed the instant lawsuit under § 1983 in Missouri state court, naming as defendants the City and Chief Wolf and alleging that, by refusing to release his handgun and ammunition, they are denying him his (1) Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights and (2) his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The City and Chief Wolf removed the case to federal court.

During the ensuing discovery, the City and Chief Wolf produced the City Police Department's "Operational Guidelines" ("Guidelines") regarding "Evidence Collection and Preservation." The Guidelines provide, in pertinent part, that "[h]andguns, once seized will not be released without a court order or specific authorization by the Chief of Police." Additionally, the City and Chief Wolf represented that, while not explicitly stated in the Guidelines, the Hazelwood Police Department also has the policy of not releasing "seized firearms to individuals who have an active warrant or wanted pending against them." Finally, the City and Chief Wolf averred that both of these policies are "based on governmental and public interests, namely compelling safety considerations and the protection of the community from the dangers of firearms."

Following discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. On October 22, 2010, the district court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. As to Walters's procedural due-process claim, the district court analyzed the adequacy of the post-deprivation remedy of replevin under the balancing test set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), noting that Walters "ha[d] not addressed the application of Mathews to his claim." Walters v. City of Hazelwood, Mo., No. 4:09-CV-1473 (CEJ), 2010 WL 4290105, at *4 n.2 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 22, 2010) (slip copy). The district court concluded "that the balance of the Mathews factors establishes the constitutional adequacy of defendants' procedure of requiring an owner to obtain a court order to regain possession of a seized firearm." Id. at *4. Moreover, the district court acknowledged Walters's argument "that his due process rights have been violated because he has been deprived of his property without a hearing before an impartial tribunal," but it concluded that Walters "has failed to pursue the state remedy that would provide him exactly that: an action in replevin." Id. Indeed, the district court stated that Walters's "failure to seek replevin is fatal to his due process claim. In order to prevail on a ...

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