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Republished with permission from former DA and current NY attorney Peter Howard Tilem.

As a New York criminal defense lawyer that handles an inordinate number of gun related cases, I hear a large number of stories about the interaction between the police and law abiding gun owners. After more than 20 years, however, very few cases shock me. What happened after a Westchester County gun owner called a suicide hotline bears repeating as a cautionary tale to law abiding citizens everywhere . . .

A Westchester County gun owner got the surprise of his life when he called a suicide hot line to talk about tools to manage depression. After the gun owner’s wife from whom he had been separated introduced him to her new boyfriend, and after having suffered a medical condition, the loss of his home and the break up of his marriage, the gun owner decided to call a suicide help line for help and instead ended up with more trouble.

The gun owner clearly remembers calling 1 800 SUICIDE to ask about tools for managing depression. He also recalls that he started out the conversation by telling the operator that he wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else but that he simply wanted information.

The operator then steered the conversation to whether or not there was a child in the house (there was) and whether or not there were guns in the house (there were). Within a very short time of answering that there were guns in the house, and while still on the telephone, the Westchester County gun owner heard a knock at the door. It was the police.

When he answered the door, he was informed by police that he called the Suicide hotline and he has guns in the house, it’s mandatory that they take them. He was then led to a patrol car while the police took the .357 magnum he kept for protection. The police seized the gun without a warrant but left other guns in a safe that contained a collection of guns. The police drove the gun owner to the County hospital.

Unfortunately, the nightmare didn’t end there. After being held against his will for several days, the gun owner was released to the custody of the police who then drove him home to take the rest of his guns without a warrant. The gun owner was made to open the safe while the police inventoried and seized his guns.

To date, two months later the police have refused to release the guns, putting the burden on the gun owner to go to Court to get a Court order for the police to release the guns.

For the gun owner, a momentary call to get information about depression resulted in a nightmare that could come right out of a story from the Soviet Union. Here in the United States a gun owner seeking help ends up with his guns seized without a warrant and held without charges.

[Update: Mr. Tilem’s client has decided to voluntarily relinquish his NY firearms permit. As he’s moving to Florida, he doesn’t want to risk a revocation, which would adversely affect his chances of securing a Florida permit. Given the Empire State’s past history, chances are high that the guns will never be returned.]

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  1. Something doesn’t add up here. Why would someone call a suicide hotline for tips on how to deal with depression, if they weren’t contemplating suicide?

    • Probably just to get basic mental-health related information, such as what his options were. e.g. What’s the difference between seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist?, What are the different types of treatments?, etc.

  2. Laws and procedure vary by state, thankfully. Here in WA, even if you’ve made enough statements to actually be considered suicidal, all it gets you is taken to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. Police don’t determine if you’re able to have guns, the doctors do. There’s no automatic search of the residence for guns, either, and we don’t look for permission or a warrant unless there are clear statements or actions showing a threat to others.

    At the point where a gun is taken for safekeeping, once a person is released from the hospital, they must be given back their property unless they turn up with either a felony, a court order with Brady indicator that they’re not allowed to have guns, or certain mental health issues that got them actually committed to an institution against their will.

    And we actually give them back. Usually within a week after release from the hospital.

    • I find nothing wrong with that. Sure this guys case in NYC is silly, and sad, but I can honestly see where there might be some cases where taking away somone’s guns might actually save them, or their family. So in the case like yours where if they are actually committed, either by actions, or by their own volition, them safe keeping of the weapons isn’t bad.
      It is a fine line, where the person who might really need help and also protecting ones individual rights is upheld.
      I would say if you have an issue call your doctor, not 911 or some hotline.

      • Why didn’t they take his plastic bags, pharmaceuticals, knives, car, boot laces and gravity away? Couldn’t he hurt himself with those things too?

        It’s possible to be depressed and be a rational person. People who are dangerous are going to be that way with or without a gun. A person is either safe in public or they aren’t. Calling a hot line and asking questions as he did should not give anyone the impression that he’s a danger to others. Actions like this will push people away from the help that they may need.

  3. He likely is now barred from purchasing firearms on a federal level however, as he was committed involuntarily for a mental issue.

  4. Cops would have to cuff me, shoot me and drag the safe out of my house before I gave them up without a warrant .

    I have found interaction between ANYONE but the most seriously mentally ill individuals and the so called mental health establishment is a joke and more often than not causes more harm than good. The system is set up to keep you on powerful and expensive drugs, barring that to keep you locked up in expensive facilities. NEVER call any hotline unless you really feel suicidial, if you want other info its 2012 they have this thing called google.

  5. He needs to get him a lawyer that enjoys and is very good at smacking around felonious police depts.
    What a crock. He probably has lost those guns for good but it never hurts to try and get them back.
    As far as calling a suicide hotline for info??, yea I could see that considering what all he had just been through. Is a hell of a lot cheaper than a phsyciatrist, but probably better than what the local bar patrons would have told him.

  6. Yet another reason never to call that line. The operator ought to be required to tell callers that they’re home address has come up on the caller ID before anything else gets said.

    • They should also be required to inform them that they are illegally reporting all information to the police. I also found out that the police illegally have garbage men search your trash cans for anything “suspicious” and report it to the police – looks like you have to keep an armed guard by your trash cans now.

  7. I don’t see how that is legal or ethical. A single phone call leading to involuntary commitment? I know many jurisdictions give cops the authority and discretion to commit someone, but based only off a report from a suicide hotline? It didn’t sound like they’d interacted with the fellow before deciding. Then confiscating his firearms? Did they just hear “guns” relating to a suicide hotline and shit a warrant-shaped brick?

    • The police generally can’t commit anyone. The laws vary from state to state, but usually a physician can involuntarily commit someone for a short period (1-3 days) if they believe that that they are a threat to themselves or others. Usually anything longer than emergency commital is decided by a judge, not a physician.

      Also, put yourself in the doctor’s shoes. The police bring you a guy who they say is suicidal and called a hotline. You can take the risk that he’s actually fine and just let him go if he wants, but if something bad happens you’re responsible. Or, you can keep him in observation for a couple days to make sure he really is fine, and then let him go. Which would you choose as the physician? It’s a lousy situation, but you’re probably going to err on the side of caution.

  8. There is a legal distinction between an involuntary referral by police for a mental health evaluation, and an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility or institution for treatment.

    Often when someone is referred for evaluation, they are found to not be so mentally ill that they must be committed. At this point, the federal restriction does not apply. Whether local jurisdictions like NY or NY city choose to be more restrictive, or outright ignore the law, is a separate issue.

      • 72 hour hold is for evaluation only. However in NY, LE can only compel you to go to the hospital for evaluation. Psych ED staff then determines how long they keep you, up to 72 hours.

      • Yes, a very important difference. Police do not have anywhere near the training or experience to make a medical diagnosis. In my few years on duty, I have dealt with many people suffering from mental illness, and a few that seem to enjoy it.

        While quite often I find that my quick assessment turns out to be the same or very similar to what they were clinically diagnosed with, there are enough times when I have been wrong that I am glad my medical opinion carries no legal weight.

        And since it has no legal weight, I cannot commit anyone for treatment. Only evaluation.

      • If the responding argument to the anti’s that flaunt the CDC gun death statistics is that the majority of US gun deaths are suicides then you can’t be surprised that a governmental entity that is interested in reducing gun deaths implements a policy that takes guns + suicides very seriously.

        From one perspective it could be argued that these policies prevented him from being a victim of suicide. I’m sure that whoever enacted the policy that got this guy’s guns removed is including him as a statistic that the policy works. From the information provided, I’m not sure that I can disagree.

        Again, there’s got to be more to the story. Who calls a suicide hotline for tips on dealing with depression? You don’t call the poison control hotline for tips on creating a better hot sauce.

        • “From one perspective it could be argued that these policies prevented him from being a victim of suicide.”

          That wouldn’t be much of an argument since that’s absolutely unknowable.

  9. I guess the ‘suicide’ in the ‘suicide hot line’ is what happens when you call them, your rights commit suicide.

  10. When will people learn not to deal with organizations that work as spies for the Gestapo?

    It is ironic though, that both Barack Romney and Mitt Obama have gone on about how “we need to improve mental health care to stop shooters like James Holmes”, yet if you even talk to someone about maybe getting help if you think you have a problem, you automatically lose your Second Amendment rights forever – great inspiration for any gun owner to call a help line *rolls eyes*.

  11. The fascist elitists ruling the sheeple from their thrones arrogantly ignore the Laws of Unintended Consequences. Word will spread of cases such as this one and others highlighting the over-reaction by government goons. People will adjust their behavior. Suicide Prevention services will get a reputation that they can’t be trusted.

    For all those who believe the police will not cooperate in a massive confiscation order I’m not so sure. If that time ever comes, government does not need to send the police to get your guns. Government can take steps to get people to involuntarily turn in their guns by turning off the hme utilities, denying access to credit cards and banking, forcing employers to apply a special tax to their payroll checks, professional licenses for certain careers can be revoked, etc.

    • For all those who believe the police will not cooperate in a massive confiscation order I’m not so sure

      Aharon, if anything is sure in this world, if we can draw any conclusion from Katrina whatsoever, it’s that the cops will drool over the very thought of confiscating our guns if they have the chance to do so.

      • Not me. I don’t want to confiscate a damn thing unless I’m making a legit arrest. My evidence officer will return property pretty quickly without a court order as long as the gun itself was not used in a crime or homicide.

        This case is sad. Whether it is bad judgement, liability, or draconian gun laws, I find it sad that this man was denied his property. Perhaps here were mitigating circumstances not mentioned. Either way, I believe epic 2A violations under the guise of mental health concerns will increase as time passes. Perhaps I’m just cynical (aw, hell, you know I’m cynical), but I expect much more of this out of the $ 938 billion “affordable” Healthcare / Obamacare system.

        • Just wondering if the Fascist State of Illinois?? ever revoked The Right Reverend Wanna Be Jesse Jackson Jr’s FOID card for his being readmitted to mental health care facility for Bipolar treatment. Was Tues or Wed I think!!

        • Jesse Jackson is a super citizen, afforded special rights, like not having to go to work for 6 months while being reelected in a landslide.

          Where are your sensibilities?

        • @Accur81, if you don’t confiscate the guns, your superiors will find officers who will . . . and they won’t have to look too hard to find them.

        • I don’t want to confiscate a damn thing unless I’m making a legit arrest.

          Ah, but see when they decree that it’s illegal for the peasants to possess pitchforks (or guns), then it will be “legit”.

    • Ooh. This is particularly insidious because a citizen that wishes to stand up for their rights doesn’t even know to whom they should stand up. There would be so many layers and people involved that the citizen would have a very difficult singling out any person.

      This is yet another reason to reduce the size of government … so it is easier to determine who is violating your rights and the law.

      • If I have to shoot somebody who tries to kill me and he expires, am I still supposed to call 911? ‘Cause 911 is an emergency line, and wouldn’t the emergency be over?

        Enquiring minds want to know.

        • Good question!!! I want to know too!! Makes sense. BG made a bad choice, expired because of his bad choice so no more emergency!!
          Most every PD has a non emergency number so the best thing would be to add it to the contacts list and call it when the need arises!!!

        • @Ralph

          I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to call 911 if’n you shoot some folks, but I’m not a lawyer.

  12. The part that I failed to pick up on at first was that he had a kid in the house with him. Was he a single parent? If so, what happened to the kid while daddy was gone? Social services? As a former single dad I should’ve picked up on that sooner. My bad.

  13. This isn’t anywhere near the first time I’ve heard of this happening. Stuff like this severely devalues the hotline as a service. Who would ever use it anymore knowing that it gives free reign for the cops to steal your guns?

  14. And here I thought that calls to suicide prevention hotlines were confidential…Everything else about health and especially mental health is so locked up under HIPPA that it takes a court order–a subpoena is not enough–to get any of that stuff. And here this “counselor” was all hooked up with the police?

    Under California law, a so-called “5150” is a hold, not a comittment. Police may take a person into custody and deliver that person to a mental health facility on a “hold” for 72 hour observation and assessment to be performed by qualified medical personnel. That person has not been adjudicated mentally ill, and has not lost his or her rights to keep and bear arms. The police do not have authority to confiscate any weapons (except from the person threatening suicide). The person must be released when the assessment to be performed determines that the person is not a threat to himself or others–which could be a pretty short period of time.
    The medical authority may impose an involuntary commitment upon an “assessment” that a person is a threat to himself or others, but that determination is subject to judicial review within one week of the inception of the committment (unless the commitment is voluntary). The initial commitment does result in a five year prohibition on the possession of firearms (which has not been tested as a violation of due process). A peson who has been adjudicated mentally ill and a threat to himself or others may be held indefinitiely, but subject to periodic judicial review.

    Oh, and one difference in Cal law–it is not a crime to attempt suicide, unlike a lot of the eastern states. Which makes sense–why should you be criminally prosecuted for an attempt if they cannot prosecute you for succeeding? I think that the criminal prohibition of suicide is a throw back to the Biblical mandate that a suicide is damned to hell for all creation.

    • Yep. The people I took in were wandering the streets and babbling incoherently, claiming that they were God, or both.

  15. he should’ve called a friend and had him hold the guns for him, then once he got out, moved to FL or some other Free State.

  16. It would be fair for them to have a warning when you call that any information shared on the line is not confidential and may be shared with LE because clearly it is, in real time, to the detriment of the caller.
    Before anyone starts with “it’s for the children” or “it saves one life it’s worth it” remember he was incarcerated and deprived without compensation his property. They probably took his kid to Child Services as well.
    Because he called a help line and answered truthfully loaded questions that imply he was going to use guns on his child. That’s not right, nor should be allowed, and probably violated his civil rights in the process.

  17. Did the police remember to confiscate all the knives, rope, toxic chemicals, razor blades, car, plastic bags, pills, or other items that might cause him harm if used improperly, along with shutting off the electricity and water, and removing the refrigerator so he doesn’t get trapped inside?

  18. There is a lot of big talk about putting “mentally ill” people on the so called Universal Background Checklist. Right.
    This will end up being a huge medical/political battle. The first lawsuit will come from the ACLU. Then the Hippa people. That will be followed by all of the libs who demanded that the checklist be expanded in the first place. Oops!
    The Laws just passed in NY are the perfect example. They require that this be done but without any study beforehand or the hint of the medical definitions of the mental illness or as to actually how this is to be reported and by who.
    Are you mentally ill if you take a prescription med to sleep because you are “stressed”? Or because your doctor even recommended Prozac, Welbutrin or God forbid, Depakote?
    Its reported that doctors in our state (TN) have been asking their patients (not mental patients) for sometime now if they have guns in the house as part of the screening for routine visits. Of course this is for Medicare and Obamacare but why?

    How about if you just returned from serving your country in some hell hole in the middle east?
    I read in the editorial section of Investors Business Daily a few days ago that vets mustering out have been getting notices from the VA that they will automatically be classified as mentally ill for the purposes of being denied to obtain firearms in the states. If they wish to protest they must do so with in thirty days and make an appointment to be evaluated by the VA in order to be cleared. I don’t have the link right now. I’ll try and post it tomorrow. But here’s the title and date:
    VA Unconstitutionally Tries To Disarm Veterans
    Posted 02/25/2013 07:05 PM ET

    Run that one by your liberal friends

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