Army 1st Sgt. Matthew Corrigan learned the hard way that the District of Columbia doesn’t believe it has to abide by the Constitution like the 50 states do. For nearly 40 years, the nation’s capital completely ignored the Second Amendment.
(This is the final part of a four-part series. Click here to read part one.)
On Feb. 3, 2010, the Metropolitan Police Department also didn’t give much thought to the Fourth Amendment right of Americans to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The department’s SWAT team blew through due process and into the home of Sgt. Corrigan without a warrant because the reservist was suspected of having an unregistered personal gun in his home.
When the incident was taken to court, the city realized its prosecution was jeopardized by the lack of a warrant. Officers came up with various cover stories of “exigent circumstances,” but the scheme unraveled before going to trial. Though all charges were dropped last month, the veteran who volunteered to serve a year in Iraq has suffered immensely. He is suing the city for a minimum of $500,000 in damages. The story of how the city’s case against Sgt. Corrigan fell apart says a lot about the contempt in which the District holds gun owners.
On the night of his arrest, SWAT team members woke Sgt. Corrigan at 4 a.m. and ordered him out of his home. They demanded the keys to his English basement apartment. When the soldier refused, the officers broke down his front door, ransacked his apartment, threw his dog Matrix in the pound, and seized his three personal guns and seven types of ammunition.
The cops zip-tied the first sergeant’s hands and put him into an armored command truck, where he was questioned before any guns were found. They didn’t check with a judge. “When I was secured, a warrant could have been obtained,” Sgt. Corrigan said. “When I offered not to give my consent to enter my place, a warrant could have been obtained. When the first weapon in plain view was allegedly seen, a warrant could have been obtained. … During each of these incidents what was the exigency that prevented a warrant from being obtained?”
Sgt. Corrigan’s attorney, Richard E. Gardiner, filed a motion to suppress the evidence in August 2010, saying the police violated his client’s rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. City officials claimed they had to act because Sgt. Corrigan was an expert in planting explosives and there was a smell of gas in the building. According to a November 2010 filing, police “gained intelligence about the defendant, including information that the defendant was an Iraqi war veteran with specialized training (believed to be training in connection with deploying ‘booby traps’).” These factors supposedly created an emergency situation requiring entry without a warrant.
Both exigent circumstances - the smell of natural gas and experience with booby traps - were fabricated.
Records show the emergency ordnance disposal team on the scene found no evidence of explosives at the apartment. Instead of bringing a bomb-sniffing dog, they chose to search with a special gun-searching dog.
In discovery, Mr. Gardiner asked the prosecutor for the rest of the evidence supporting her theory, but there was none. The city conceded, telling the court in 2012 that, “Upon further investigation, the government is no longer relying on the proffer that the Metropolitan Police Department was aware that the defendant had training in the deployment of ‘booby traps.’ “
The smell of gas excuse also failed to hold up. On April 18, Mr. Gardiner put on the stand Officer Carlos Heraud, one of the first on the scene that night. Asked if he had smelled gas, Officer Heraud said he did not. There was no mention of gas or explosions in the officer’s handwritten notes from that night. Police also had Washington Gas turn off the line to the building prior to the raid. A police spokesman refused to comment on this case.
On April 19, D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan granted the defense’s motion to suppress the evidence because the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The prosecutor called Mr. Gardiner before a scheduled hearing last month to inform him that the city would drop the charges.
After the charges were dropped May 21, Judge Ryan did not agree to release Sgt. Corrigan’s firearms and ammunition. Mr. Gardiner told the judge that his client is now a resident of Virginia, where registration is not required, and his property should be returned in accordance with D.C. and federal law.
A newly assigned prosecutor filed a brief opposing the return by repeating the discredited gas and booby trap issues. Mr. Gardiner said, “I wrote that the opposition is unethical because he presents facts to a judge that he knows are not true because the assistant attorney general previously filed a notice to the court that withdrew these claims.” The judge has yet to make a final ruling.
The city has no right to keep Sgt. Corrigan’s property. It should be returned immediately. Guns are not “contraband” - they are items specifically valued and protected by the Constitution. The problem is that Washington officials do not abide by the full meaning and spirit of the Second Amendment. The District believes it alone can bestow the right to keep arms on those who can afford hefty fees, pass a written test and tell the government about every single firearm owned. The Founding Fathers would be appalled.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times. Her series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.
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