A chorus of law enforcement officials from the Bay Area and throughout California made an impassioned call today for a recent decision overturning a ban on possession of body armor by violent felons to be reversed.
Lee Guelff, the brother of slain San Francisco police Officer James Guelff, for whom the legislation was named, was among those at a news conference this morning in San Francisco.
The event was held at Pine and Franklin streets, the precise location where on Nov. 13, 1994, Guelff was shot and killed by Victor Boutwell, a carjacking suspect who was wearing a bulletproof vest, a flak jacket and an armored helmet.
During a subsequent gun battle with police, Boutwell held 120 officers at bay for a half-hour, firing more than 100 rounds and absorbing several gunshots without effect before a police sniper was able to hit and kill him.
Guelff said he was disappointed in the Dec. 17 decision by the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles striking down the 1998 state law, the James Guelff Body Armor Act, which made it a crime for anyone convicted of a violent felony to buy, own or possess body armor.
The appeal was brought by Ethan Saleem, a man who had been previously convicted of manslaughter and who was arrested after Los Angeles police stopped a car in which he was a passenger and found him wearing a 10-pound military-style bulletproof vest.
Saleem argued there was insufficient evidence the vest constituted the “body armor” referred to in the state law, and that the law was unconstitutionally vague and did not specify which types of body armor are prohibited.
The court agreed the law was vague and ruled in favor of overturning it by a 2-1 margin.
“Although what possibly could be vague concerning the possession of a Kevlar vest, I am not sure,” Guelff said today. He noted the dissenting judge’s opinion that the law’s intent was to prevent violent felons from wearing any type of body armor.
The dissenting judge concluded that the law’s definition of body armor was sufficiently precise to prevent arbitrary enforcement.
San Francisco police Chief George Gascon, District Attorney Kamala Harris, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, Los Angeles police Assistant Chief Michel Moore, San Mateo police chief and president of the California Police Chief’s Association Susan Manheimer, and San Jose police Chief Rob Davis were among those calling today for the California Supreme Court to overturn the decision, and for state legislators to prepare new legislation to strengthen the law.
“It’s a wrongheaded decision,” Gascon said of the appeals court ruling. He and other police officials called body armor “an offensive weapon” when worn by criminals.
“There is no need for any convicted felon to be able to buy body armor, or to be able to wear body armor,” he said, drawing a comparison to the prohibition against felons possessing guns.
“It is not only the safety of officers that is at risk, it is the safety of all of us,” Gascon said.
“People wearing body armor are prepared to be shot,” Harris agreed. “It also means that they are probably prepared to kill.”
“If we do not protect our police officers, we cannot protect you,” said Davis. “This is a common sense issue.”
Attorney General Jerry Brown has said his office plans to appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court later this month.
“If this law gets reinstated, it’s going to save lives,” Hennessey said.
Harris said she was working on legislation that would extend the body armor prohibition to all felons, and not just those convicted of violent felonies.
Intact is a 2002 federal law also prohibiting felons from possessing body armor. The law, which is also named after Guelff, was upheld by a federal appeals court last year and could provide a safeguard to law enforcement seeking to enforce the ban.
Harris agreed such criminal cases could potentially be shifted to federal jurisdiction while a challenge to the state appeals court ruling, and possible additional state legislation, remain in the works.
In the meantime, “We would certainly go to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Gascon said, to inquire about potential federal prosecution for such cases.
According to Guelff, more than a dozen other states have enacted similar bans on felons possessing body armor since the law named for his brother was enacted in California.
While legal challenges in other states have not come to fruition, Guelff noted the irony that the only successful challenge so far occurred in the state where the law was conceived.
“I’m pretty sure that the California Supreme Court will uphold the original statute,” said Guelff. “And if they don’t, we will revisit the issue with language that is ironclad, so that it cannot be assailed again.”
“I’m confident that common sense will prevail, in the end,” he said.