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Calif. court rules off-duty COs can carry gun without permit

Attorneys say the ruling may help protect people in general in addition to law enforcement officers

By Garth Stapley
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. Jail guards in Stanislaus County and elsewhere have the same right as patrol deputies and state prison guards to carry a concealed weapon when off-duty, appellate justices decided in a ruling affecting most California counties.

The unanimous decision reverses an earlier ruling by a Stanislaus judge who had sided with Sheriff Adam Christianson and county administrators.

“We just want to protect ourselves and our families in public, that’s all we ask,” said Matt Pettus, president of the Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriffs Association. That’s the labor union representing custodial deputies, or jailers, suing the county to achieve equal footing with patrol deputies, at least in authority to pack heat while off-duty.

Christianson could not be reached Tuesday for comment. County Counsel John Doering said the sheriff and county leaders will discuss whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

The ruling may help protect people in general in addition to law enforcement officers, said Gold River attorney Richard P. Fisher, representing the jailers’ union. Citing “random mass killings,” he said, “You want more professionally trained officers out there than not, given the current circumstance. It’s a good decision for public policy.”

Pettus noted that an off-duty state prison guard protected dozens of shoppers at Modesto’s Costco store on July 28 by shooting a man who had jabbed a knife at employees and was lunging at the officer. The man was not killed; his sister told The Modesto Bee he was suicidal.

Jailers in 32 of California’s 58 counties jump through extra hoops not required of other peace officers in applying for gun permits, paying fees and renewing every four years. Those counties rely heavily on advice in a 2002 opinion by the state attorney general saying that jailers’ right to carry guns without permits ends when their work shifts do.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter agreed in 2014, but the union appealed, saying that interpretation ignores the intent of legislators who are enacting applicable state law. Three magistrates with the Fifth Appellate District in Fresno heard arguments on both sides in early July and sided with the union.

“Custodial deputies put their lives on the line every day going to work with these dangerous individuals, and that danger continues as they lead their lives away from their jobs,” said a union briefing cited in the appellate decision, handed down by Justices Stephen Kane, Brad Hill and Gene Gomes.

“A custodial deputy’s status as a ‘peace officer’ does not end when he or she is off duty,” reads their ruling, which frowns on restrictions that might “turn on and off like a light switch depending on the individual’s particular activities, location or circumstances in a given moment.”

The ruling directs Salter to come in line with the appellate court. If the county does not seek a higher ruling, Salter would be expected to issue a new decision directing Christianson to issue jailers new identification cards with no reference to off-duty permits for guns.

The appellate ruling suggests that Salter decide “whether there are adequate and proper grounds” to order that the county also refund permit fees paid by unspecified numbers of Stanislaus jail guards, who have been paying $113 for initial applications and $57 for renewals. Also, the county must reimburse the union’s costs to appeal Salter’s decision -- probably a few hundred dollars -- but not the union’s attorney fees.

“This is why we have smart, careful people on the appellate bench looking closely at the law and holding everyone accountable,” Fisher said. “It’s a refreshing example of how the system is supposed to work.”

Pettus said custodial deputies have even more reason than patrol deputies for protection from released inmates, because “working the jails, they get to know us; they see more of us than the patrol guys.”

The current county budget lists 234 custodial deputies and sergeants and 124 patrol deputies and sergeants.

“None of us wants to run around being the neighborhood police officer, but in life-and-death situations, somebody may be able to react,” Pettus said. “This removes an unnecessary and unfair burden.”