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PARKLAND (CBSMiami) – On a recent weeknight, CBS4 News rode along with Broward Sheriff’s deputies to get an up close look at one of the newest tools in the law enforcement toolbox to fight gun violence — risk protection orders. Our cameras rolled during a safety briefing.
“We’re gonna go over to the house,” said BSO Lt. Alexandra Holmes. “We just need you to provide backup.”
Lieutenant Alexandra Holmes is in charge of this operation to serve the risk protection order, or RPO.
They are the legal mechanism created after the Parkland shooting that allows law enforcement officers to ask a court to take guns and ammunition away from a person deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Holmes said safety is the top priority and they want to make sure the person receiving the RPO understands what’s happening.
“We explain to them that we’re there for a civil matter,” she said. “It’s not a criminal matter. They’re not in any trouble. We’re just concerned for their safety and the safety of the public.”
Holmes said once the RPO’s get signed by a judge, deputies are out serving them a few hours later.
“As soon as we get them, we try to make a least an effort in serving as soon as we get it. We don’t want to wait,” she said. “We don’t want anything to happen in that time frame. We don’t want to wait until the next day.”
RPO’s have been used extensively throughout Broward County in the past year. The first of the more than 90 cases BSO has filed occurred in early April when they took several guns away from Jerron Smith in Deerfield Beach. BSO says Smith was arrested a few days earlier for shooting into a man’s car and they deemed him a threat.
To get an idea of how the risk protection order process works, we recently sat down with BSO Mike Riggio, Captain of the Threat Management Division and Brooke Latta, Assistant General Counsel for BSO. They oversee parts of the RPO program for BSO and work to file the risk protection orders in court. These cases require a trio of departments — legal, criminal and civil. It takes coordination and timing and the situations can require a quick response based on the circumstances of a case.
The case often begins with a tip about a person making direct threats of violence or through a social media post. Sometimes the tip about a potentially violent person comes in as part of an existing law enforcement investigation. Investigators talk to the people involved and try to answer some of the questions laid out in the RPO statute.
“(Lawmakers) set out about 14 or 15 factors to look for,” Latta explained. “Has the individual ever been arrested for a violent crime? Has the individual recently acquired firearms? Has the individual made any threats or been violent to another individual or to themselves? Are they abusing alcohol or controlled substances? What do family members think?”
Latta says BSO then decides whether to ask a judge to sign the temporary risk protection order. That order requires the accused to “immediately surrender all firearms and ammunitions in his custody, control, or possession and any license to carry a concealed weapon or firearm.” The order also requires the person not to possess any firearm or ammo during the course the order is in effect and it also bars the person from purchasing firearms and ammunition.
If the judge signs the order, then investigators go out to find the person and have them surrender their firearms. The order can be in effect for up to one year and the order can be re-argued in a year to be extended.
Latta said the law has been effective.
“We filed RPO’s on individuals who’ve made threats to shoot up schools, to shoot up malls, to shoot up churches, to shoot up neighbors,” she said. “You get all types of people, making all types of threats using a firearm.”
Latta said there have been legal challenges to the RPO’s filed in Broward County and at this point a judge has ruled them constitutional. Those legal challenges are sure to continue.
Riggio said he believes lives are being saved thanks to the new law.
“We’re trying to prevent serious harm to Broward residents from occurring and we also make sure that people who haven’t done anything wrong aren’t having their rights infringed upon,” Riggio said.
BSO says the court process to get an RPO filed against someone contains layers of due process protection for the accused and requires clear and convincing evidence. However, the accused is not involved in the initial court proceedings to have their guns removed. Riggio also explained that there are safeguards in place to make sure false claims don’t wind up causing an otherwise law-abiding citizen to have his guns taken away.
“You’re seeing that there’s 3 or 4 different things that are leading you to start this removal of firearms as opposed to a person who may have just said something randomly out of anger,” Riggio said.
Risk protection orders became law through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, which was passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Governor Rick Scott in the weeks after the Parkland shooting. Across the country, according to ballotpedia.org, Florida is one 13 states currently have RPO’s on the books and gun control advocates expect that number to increase.
“This is a measure that we are seeing states work on already for 2019, although the sessions just started,” said Laura Cutiletta, Legal Director for the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “We’re anticipating this is something that will continue to spread throughout the states.”
RPO’s have received bipartisan support in the recent past. Florida Senator Marco Rubio first filed legislation to create RPO’s and spoke about it the month after the Parkland shooting. The legislation didn’t go anywhere in Congress and he recently filed similar legislation again.
“We’ve been talking for some time about extreme risk protection orders,” Rubio said at a news conference just a few weeks after the Parkland shooting. “Today we’re here to introduce that bill and you can see it’s bipartisan. These tools now give the authorities to go in and take away their guns — with due process — but also prevent them from buying others that could put people in danger.”
Even the head of the NRA’s legislative arm, Chris Cox, endorsed RPO’s in the aftermath of Parkland.
“We need to stop people before they act so Congress should provide funding for states to adopt risk protection orders. This can help prevent violent behavior before it ends in tragedy,” Cox said in a YouTube video. “We can take action and prevent violence and protect the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans at the same time.”
However, on social media, some gun rights advocates believe RPO’s could result in overreach by law enforcement and a lack of due process rights for gun owners. They also fear false claims could ensnare innocent victims.
We recently reached out to the NRA several times for comment on this issue and other issues surrounding the Parkland shooting. However, no one from the organization returned our calls. On their website, the NRA says they oppose any federal legislation on risk protection orders “in which federal agents would be tasked with seizing firearms after a hearing in federal court.”