By Matthew Kauffman and Dave Altimari
The Hartford Courant
When Jesse Hovanesian applied for a pistol permit two years ago, he did not mention his criminal conviction in a case where police said he fled on foot toward his house after a traffic stop, yelling, "You can't come in here without a warrant," before the officer grabbed him at the front door and wrestled him to the ground.
When Bristol police dug a little deeper, records show, they found the unemployed 23-year-old had been a suspect in a variety of drug and larceny investigations, along with a road-rage incident in which he was accused of a slashing another driver with a knife. He was not convicted or charged in most of the cases.
But in the end, none of it mattered.
After Bristol's police chief rejected his application to carry a gun, Hovanesian appealed to the Connecticut Board of Firearm Permit Examiners, which found that the chief was a few days late in submitting a written explanation of his denial -- a deadline for which the board shows no mercy. As a result, when Hovanesian's case was called in March, the board took no testimony and voted immediately and unanimously to overturn the police chief's denial and give Hovanesian a pistol permit by default.
"I did have some complications in the past; I'm not going to deny that," Hovanesian said last week. "I had to jump through some hoops, but it all worked out and I got my permit."
In outcome, if not in speed, that is the typical result of the board's deliberations. In more than two-thirds of permit-denial cases in recent years, the board has rejected a local official's judgment that an individual cannot be trusted to carry a gun in public, a Courant examination of board records reveals.
While police and board members differ on the reasons for those decisions, what's clear is that hundreds of individuals deemed unsuitable to carry a gun by local authorities are now carrying guns. Among those who have won appeals at the board are individuals with convictions for cruelty to animals, interfering with an officer and multiple drunken-driving incidents.
That record leads some to charge that the board is too deferential to appellants.
"I have heard plenty of stories of the board taking the side of the applicant, essentially providing them a script on how to win an appeal," said South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed.
But John Corradino, a Bridgeport prosecutor who chairs the board, said the problem isn't his panel, but rather police chiefs who conduct haphazard investigations or do a poor job preparing for the appeals hearing -- or who skip the hearing altogether. In more than 20 percent of denial cases that have come before the board in recent years, local officials automatically lost after missing deadlines for filing paperwork or not showing up at all.
"When the chiefs follow the law," Corradino said, "they win."
The lopsided outcome numbers are not the only point of contention with Connecticut's somewhat inscrutable pistol-permit appeals process, which relies on a volunteer board drawn from assorted walks of life to apply a vague statutory standard to review the widely varied judgments of 169 distinct local officials.
And so, once or twice a month, the seven members of the board, compensated solely with pizza, gather to face a litany of challenges, including a backlog so great that some meetings have lasted until long after midnight, personal and philosophical rifts so deep that one board member has a federal lawsuit against other members, and decisions so unpopular with law enforcement that the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association launched an unsuccessful bid this year to scrap the panel altogether and require pistol-permit applicants to go to court if they want to challenge a chief's denial.
Given all that, Connecticut's permitting process still earns a modicum of praise, even from some of its harshest critics.
"The system is not broken. The system is running," said Edward Peruta, a private legal investigator and de facto board gadfly. "Could it use a tune-up? Absolutely."
Under Connecticut law, gun owners who want to carry a handgun outside their homes must file an application for a pistol permit with their local police chiefs, or first selectmen in towns that don't have a police force. There are a handful of mandatory disqualifiers, such as a felony conviction or an active restraining order for the use or threatened use of force. Beyond those, town officials must issue a temporary permit if they find that the applicant "is a suitable person to receive such a permit."
But the law offers no further definition of that language, and the main guidance comes from a 119-year-old court decision with decidedly circular language, declaring that "A person is suitable who, by reason of his character -- his reputation in the community, his previous conduct as a licensee -- is shown to be suited."
Across the state, different police chiefs have interpreted that language in vastly different ways.
Some chiefs are relatively lenient with permits, while others believe firearms in public are best reserved for law enforcement. John Ambrogio, the former police chief in Hamden, was famous for turning down virtually all requests.
When applicants feel they have gotten a raw deal from their local officials, they seek a hearing before the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners, which receives about 400 appeals a year.
But the hearings aren't really appeals, where the rules might require the board to defer to a local official's decision unless it was clearly arbitrary or unwarranted. Instead, the board considers cases with entirely fresh eyes and must authorize a permit unless they find on their own that an applicant is unsuitable.
So it is the local chiefs who have the burden of proof at the appeals hearing, so much so that a tie vote at the board overturns rather than upholds the chief's denial.
Rachel Baird, a lawyer who frequently represents clients with cases before the board, said that situation is appropriate because applicants have no formal opportunity to make their case to the local officials.
"There was no prior hearing," she said. "This is your first chance before a fact-finder."
The board also hears appeals when state police revoke an already issued permit, which typically occurs when a permit holder is arrested or becomes the subject of a restraining order. In those cases, the board usually upholds the revocation, siding with the state in 71 percent of cases in recent years.
Board members and others say that figure is relatively high, in part because revocations are almost always based on recent wrongdoing, which the board takes more seriously than past misdeeds. In addition, Baird said, those whose permits are revoked have an opportunity to negotiate with state police and attempt to win back their permits without the need for a hearing. With permit denials, she said, local officials rarely reverse their own decisions.
Members of the board are appointed by the governor, based on nominations from a broad array of groups, including the state police chiefs' association, The Connecticut State Rifle and Revolver Association, and Ye Connecticut Gun Guild.
While the board typically reaches unanimous decisions one way or the other, tougher cases reveal a philosophical split on the board. In non-unanimous cases in recent years, James Greer, a public member appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2011, sided with the local authorities 91 percent of the time. On the other end of the spectrum, Peter Kuck, nominated by Ye Connecticut Gun Guild, sided with appellants in 88 percent of split cases.
But many cases aren't remotely close, particularly when local chiefs drop the ball, including the more than 10 percent of cases where local officials don't bother to show up for the appeal hearing. The Waterbury Police Department has had six cases decided by the board in the last three years, but showed up at the final hearing for only two, both of which the department lost.
Waterbury's acting deputy police chief, Christopher Corbett, acknowledged the missed hearings, but said the department has since assigned a specific sergeant to handle firearms applications, with the process overseen by the department's legal adviser.
"There were several that we did miss, but we do have a protocol in place now," Corbett said. "So it should not be occurring anymore in terms of missing any of these hearings."
In the two cases in which Waterbury showed up, one was lost because the department missed the 10-day deadline for submitting a detailed explanation of the denial -- a scenario that has led to dozens of denials overturned in recent years.
"The board is always very quick to throw a police chief's decision out based on some technicality, and that is disheartening because a lot of time and effort goes into doing the background checks," said Windsor Locks Police Chief Eric Osanitsch, who as chief in Bristol made the call to turn down Jesse Hovanesian's gun-permit application. "I think a lot of chiefs have gotten to the point where they sort of anticipate that everything is going to be overturned by that board."
But an upcoming change in the law may shrink the number of cases overturned due to paperwork delays. Beginning July 1, police departments will have the option of requesting a one-time continuance, which Corradino said could allow departments to avoid losing a case by default for missing a deadline.
Board member T. William Knapp, the former police chief in Wethersfield, said local departments have no reason to complain about losing cases if they don't bother to appear. But he said that even when chiefs send a representative, they are too often ill-prepared, stumbling through a folder of documents and making factual errors and half-hearted arguments.
"I would bet that you can't find me a case where a chief came up there and made a decent and reasonable presentation where he wasn't upheld." Knapp said. "I don't really want to be critical of the chiefs, except to say frankly, very frankly, sometimes I sit there and I'm embarrassed by some of the reasons why the chiefs deny the permits."
Earlier this year, the board heard the case of Sean Paddock, a Naval nuclear machinist mate at the Groton submarine base, who appealed after the city of Groton police department told him he would have to wait four months to have his fingerprints taken to start the application process. State law requires departments to give applicants an answer within eight weeks.
"We have a procedure in which the people sign up for their fingerprinting," Groton Lt. John Barone told the board. "You can't just walk up and hand in an application."
"Then you're not obeying the law," Corradino told him.
Paddock attempted to send in fingerprint cards taken by state police, but Groton rejected them.
"My chief desires that we print our own people," Barone said.
"I don't care, damn it," board member Peter Kuck shot back. "It's the law."
The board ordered Groton to issue Paddock a permit.
"When the local police refuse to follow state statute, what are we to do?" Kuck said later.
"That's why we need a civilian review board."
Police Fight Back
Knapp said the board often hears cases in which a permit was rejected based on a decades-old minor arrest. He said those denials typically fail his test of suitability. "To me, the basic definition of suitable is: Can you trust him to have a gun outside the house and not be a danger to the public?"
That frequently requires the board to weigh past misbehavior, which appellants routinely insist were isolated incidents or reflect an earlier part of their lives. There was the Canton man who swatted a cellphone out of an ex-girlfriend's hand during an argument. And the East Hartford man convicted of drunken driving five years earlier. And the Enfield man who faced restraining orders from two different ex-girlfriends more than a decade ago.
In each of those cases, the board overturned the police, even siding with applicants who failed to disclose their arrest records or missed deadlines for filing paperwork.
But this year, the police fought back.
Knapp is chairman of the Life Members section of the state police chiefs' association and he said he maintains a good relationship with the board. But that did not stop the association from promoting a bill in the last legislative session that would have eliminated the board.
"They don't like to be overturned. Who likes being overturned?" Knapp said. "The appellants don't like it when they lose and the chiefs don't like it when they lose. And frankly, you've got some egos."
Reed, the South Windsor chief, said the association initially wanted to have the board abolished but agreed to a compromise in which the board will grow to nine members, with the addition of a retired Superior Court judge and a nominee from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
"Hopefully it will make the board a little more formal and add some decorum to those meetings," Reed said.
"They tend to be like informal tribunals that go on for hours and hours. I had a police chief call me recently who said he had to pay a sergeant 17 hours' overtime to sit at a meeting," he said.
"You just can't be expecting police departments to do that."
The board's late nights are legendary. Two years ago, a record-breaking meeting started at noon and did not finish until after 4:55 a.m. the next day.
Despite those long meetings, ever-growing caseloads beginning several years ago led to backlogs as long as 22 months before applicants had a chance to challenge the actions of local and state police. That led to complaints that some departments were turning down applicants without just cause, knowing that more than a year would pass before the board would order the permit issued. In the past year, however, the board has stepped up its meeting schedule, and the backlog is now about six months.
Kuck sees the legislation as part of a pattern of efforts to diminish oversight of police decisions on guns. "For years now, certain elements in our government have been trying to gut the board," he said.
Despite the criticism of some of their decisions, board members generally stand by their track record -- with one notable exception.
In June 2009, Middletown police rejected a pistol permit for a 26-year-old woman named Tawana Bourne.
"During the course of your background investigation, information was obtained that raised concerns about your overall suitability to possess a firearm," Chief Lynn M. Baldoni wrote to Bourne. "In Middletown alone you were arrested in 2001, 2003 and 2004 on a variety of charges which you did not disclose on either the sworn application nor to [police] during your interview."
Bourne also had faced at least one restraining order following confrontations with her mother and grandmother, and had twice been the subject of an emergency mental-health commitment. Bourne also acknowledged that she had been addicted to crack cocaine.
But she told the board that was all behind her. "All of the arrest that I acquired were based on poor and immature judgment of my past," Bourne wrote to the board. "Since then I have accomplished much to better my life, my family, and my community."
Bourne obtained her associate's degree, got a job, and helped found a number of community groups.
"Today in my life, I am a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen and I am asking the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners to appeal this denial and not infringe upon my right to keep and bear arms."
On Sept. 9. 2010, the board granted her request, overturning Middletown's denial and giving her a gun permit.
Less than 21/2 years later, Bourne was accused of brandishing a handgun during a dispute with another woman inside a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Newington. Bourne was arrested and state police revoked her gun permit, board records indicate.
But in March, she sent paperwork to the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners once again. "I would like the board to reissue my pistol permit," Bourne wrote in a brief appeal March 27. "I believe that the pending criminal charges are dubious given the nature of the incident and the motives behind my actions."
Knapp, the retired police chief, says he isn't prejudging the case, but knows the pending criminal charges against Bourne are serious.
"I don't think she has a chance of getting her permit back," Knapp said. "But I've found out, you never know. Sometimes you just never know."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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