Published: Friday, February 25, 2011
By Mark Zaretsky, Register Staff
EAST HAVEN — Two police officers have won a federal court case in which an elderly, disabled woman had alleged they violated her Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a warrantless search of her home, taking apart her legally owned handgun and, later the same day, obtaining a search-and-seizure warrant and seizing both her firearms and her firearms permit.
The 14-page ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joan G. Margolis, released Thursday, came on top of a Jan. 27, 2010, decision by U.S. District Judge Christopher F. Droney that found in favor of police Sgt. George Kammerer and Officer Joseph Murgo. It granted summary judgment with regard to the second visit on the basis that it was a legal search with a valid warrant.
Droney’s previous decision denied summary judgment, however — which would have dismissed the case prior to trial — with regard to the first search and the disabling of plaintiff Gloria Palmieri’s handgun.
Margolis found that a loaded handgun Palmieri kept on her kitchen table — from which police removed the ammunition magazine for their own safety — was in plain view, and constituted a valid exception to the normal requirement for a warrant.
Palmieri testified that the action by police left her “very defenseless” with “no protection whatsoever.” She later admitted, however, that she was not left “defenseless” and owns a second handgun, but was told never to use it because it backfires, the magistrate said in her decision.
“It was a Fourth Amendment case. She said the police officers violated her constitutional rights” against unreasonable search and seizure “by taking the ammunition out of her gun,” said attorney Hugh F. Keefe of New Haven, who represented the police officers. “This is the latest example of a federal court approving of the actions of East Haven police officers. The East Haven Police Department has a long record of success in both federal and state courts” in cases presided over “by both juries and judges.”
Murgo and Kammerer “were out there protecting the citizens of the town from potential harm,” Keefe said. “They had a report of a distraught woman with firearms. What were they supposed to do? Ignore it?”
Palmieri’s attorney, John R. Williams of New Haven, called the decision “another miscarriage of justice.
“I think it’s an unfortunate infringement on the Second Amendment rights of a citizen in East Haven,” Williams said, noting that the gun and permit later were ordered returned to Palmieri.
According to Margolis’ decision, the case resulted from a July 20, 2007, visit by a United Illuminating Co. employee.
During the visit, Palmieri, who uses a motorized scooter to get around, took Petrillo on a “tour” of the home to show the employee, Judith Petrillo, where she said she had been burglarized earlier that month.
Petrillo testified that, while in Palmieri’s living room, about 10 feet from the front door, Palmieri pointed to her kitchen table and told Petrillo that she keeps a gun on the kitchen table for protection. Petrillo saw what appeared to be a gun, she testified.
Palmieri denied that account, and said the gun was not visible.
Petrillo called police several days after the visit, claiming Palmieri was acting “paranoid,” and that she worried a child might run through Palmieri’s yard and get shot by mistake. Petrillo later testified that Palmieri was “very afraid and distraught,” feared for her life and stayed up all night in the back of her house with a gun.
When officers were sent to Palmieri’s house, retired Lt. Jay Falcioni told them that Petrillo had said Palmieri was “distraught, paranoid and unstable” and “may be a danger to herself or others,” according to documents and Falcioni’s testimony.
They also were instructed to check on Palmieri’s “mental well-being,” according to Kammerer’s testimony.