Repeal of body armor ban draws police ire 

A recent state court decision to overturn a 12-year ban on violent felons wearing body armor is prompting police from throughout the state to gather today at the site where a San Francisco police officer was murdered.

San Francisco Police Department officer James Guelff was murdered in a 25-minute shootout at Pine and Franklin streets about 16 years ago. That crime — as well as another high-profile shootout in Los Angeles — helped change state and federal law in 1998 to prohibit felons from donning certain types of body armor.

However, on Dec. 17 that ban was overturned because the statute does not cover all of the varying types of body armor.

The Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled the law “unconstitutionally void for vagueness because it does not provide fair notice of which protective body vests constitute the body armor made illegal by the statute.”

The decision enraged police officers throughout the state and prompted elected officials to ask the California Supreme Court to review the case. Police Chief George Gascón and the Los Angeles Police Protective League were among the first to speak out.

In letters to Attorney General Jerry Brown and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Gascón called the court’s decision “wrong-headed.”

Brown released a statement last week that his office would petition the California Supreme Court to review the decision next month. Chiu introduced a resolution Tuesday that urges the state’s highest court to take up the case. Chiu said he was confident the Supreme Court would overturn the appeals court decision.

“There are vague laws and there are less-vague laws,” Chiu said. “This law regarding body armor is very clear and common sense.”

But Gerald Peters, a Southern California attorney who represented Ethan Saleem — a parolee who had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter — in the appeals case, called the resulting backlash “a propaganda campaign to convince people that police are going to die.” Saleem was arrested after police pulled him over in 2007 and noticed that he was wearing a 10-pound, bulletproof vest underneath his shirt.

The state legislature could rewrite the law so that it clearly states what type of armor is prohibited, Peters said. Changing the law could take less than a year, while a Supreme Court case could take as long as two years.

“The simplest solution to this is to have the legislature just do this right,” Peters said. “It’s just more politically expedient to have the court make the decision.”

In the meantime, Peters has filed a motion to release his client after three years in prison. Saleem was sentenced in Los Angeles Superior Court to eight years in prison.

 

Police protection

Timeline of body armor laws:

1994
Victor Boutwell, wearing full body armor, kills S.F. police Officer James Guelff and woundS another officer in a shootout at Pine and Franklin streets.

1997
Two bank robbers in head-to-toe homemade body armor injure 11 LAPD officers and seven civilians in an infamous North Hollywood gun battle.

1998
James Guelff Body Armor Act of 1998 passes, prevents the state’s violent felons from possessing body armor.

2001
Sen. Dianne Feinstein helps pass a federal version of the law: the James Guelff and Chris McCurley Body Armor Act of 2001. It prohibits violent criminals convicted in federal court from purchasing, owning or possessing body armor and enables federal law enforcement to donate surplus body armor to local police agencies.

Dec. 17, 2009
The Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles rules the law “unconstitutionally void for vagueness,” saying the law is too complicated to understand which body armor is valid and which is not.

bbegin@sfexaminer

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Brent Begin

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