By Ryan Morgan
The District of Columbia has agreed to pay out a $5.1 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by gun owners who alleged the district violated their Second Amendment rights with laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms in public.
A group of five different nonresidents filed a federal class action lawsuit (pdf) against the District of Columbia’s local government in 2015, alleging their gun rights had been violated by D.C. police officers. On Monday—more than eight years after the plaintiffs started their lawsuit—U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth granted preliminary approval for a settlement agreement (pdf) that would pay out around $50,000 to six named class representative plaintiffs, another $2.2 million to cover the plaintiff’s attorney expenses, and another $2.6 million to notify and compensate other gun owners similarly impacted by D.C.’s gun laws.
The original 2015 class action complaint argues that the D.C. gun laws at the time prohibited residents from carrying their firearms outside their homes and flatly prohibited nonresidents from registering their firearms within the district.
Maggie Smith, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit was a nurse who was legally permitted to carry her firearm in North Carolina and brought her pistol with her while in D.C. in 2014. During her visit, Ms. Smith was pulled over by a police officer and, acting on information she had been taught during a gun ownership course, Ms. Smith notified the officer that she had a pistol with her that she was licensed to carry in her state. The officer subsequently arrested Ms. Smith and “she was subjected to prosecution for various felony and misdemeanor gun related offenses for almost a year.”
Other named plaintiffs were similarly arrested and charged with unlawful gun possession, whether or not they were D.C. residents. While several of the plaintiffs had their gun charges dropped, they were still negatively impacted by the arrests.
One plaintiff had a “Top Secret Security Clearance” at the time of his arrest, and while the charges were dismissed, his clearance was subjected to a review process. The lawsuit alleges another plaintiff lost his job as a result of the arrest. Yet another plaintiff had their car seized in connection with their arrest and had to drop out of college because they had no means of transporting themselves to class while their case played out.
The D.C. government defended its decision to arrest and charge the various plaintiffs, arguing that the plaintiffs had a legal obligation to be aware of the district’s gun laws.
Judge Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, rejected the D.C. government’s arguments in a 2021 opinion (pdf), writing that “there were no actions that the plaintiffs could have taken during the time period in question that would have allowed them to carry a gun for self-defense in the District of Columbia.”
“Even if the plaintiffs had ‘properly familiarize[d] themselves with District firearm laws,’ . . . they would not have had any avenue to constitutionally carry for self-defense. These laws ‘besiege[ed their] free-standing substantive rights,'” Judge Lamberth added.
The complaint proposes a class of plaintiffs that includes people who “were arrested, charged, and/or detained, or who lost their property or the use of their property” as a result of the D.C. laws prohibiting the carry or transport of handguns in public. The new settlement agreement specifies that there are more than 3,000 people who fall into the lawsuit class, who may receive compensation as part of the settlement.
The proposed settlement agreement is still subject to a “fairness hearing” in December, but currently holds the support of both the plaintiffs and the District of Columbia and has the preliminary approval of Judge Lamberth.
From NTD News