In the Matter of the Application of the State of New Jersey for the Forfeiture of Weapons

Docket No. A-3418-21 & A-3419-21

Decided June 5, 2024

Submitted by New Jersey Domestic Violence Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided petitioners’ appeals from separate orders entered on June 2, 2022, granting the State’s motions for the forfeiture of petitioner’s firearms, firearms purchaser identification cards (FPICs) and permits to purchase handguns.

In 2020, both petitioners in Morris County had temporary restraining orders (TRO) placed against them. The TROs contained a valid warrant to search for and seize petitioners’ firearms, ammunition, and FPICs. Police seized numerous firearms and ammunition from each petitioners’ home. Eventually, both alleged victims withdrew their TROs and entered into civil restraints with the petitioners in a separate action. After the TROs were withdrawn, the State filed forfeiture motions against both petitioners pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA). Petitioners entered consent orders with the State, providing for the State’s withdrawal of its forfeiture motions, pending the resolution of criminal charges subject to the State’s right to refile the motions, which it did.

On April 21, 2022, the trial court conducted hearings on each forfeiture motion. The parties disputed whether the seized firearms were “assault firearms” under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1(w). The trial court conducted hearings and qualified William Stitt, a forensic examiner, as an expert in firearms identification and operation. The expert testified that Petitioner Fox’s Bushmaster and Petitioner Ricciardi’s Del-Ton rifles were operable, semi-automatic, and met the criteria for assault firearms under the Attorney General Guidelines. The trial court found Stitt’s testimony uncontroverted and credible, and determined that both rifles were “substantially identical” to assault firearms listed in N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1(w). The trial court concluded that petitioners knowingly possessed illegal assault firearms, which could not be returned to them as they were contraband. As a result, their FPICs and permits were revoked. Based on these findings, the trial judge ordered that none of the weapons seized from petitioners could be returned to them, and that the Bushmaster and Del-Ton were to be destroyed. Petitioners subsequently appealed.

On appeal, petitioners contended that (1) the trial court erred by finding that the firearms in question was ‘substantially identical’ to any firearm listed under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1(w)(1), particularly due to the lack of evidence presented; (2) the trial court erred by failing to apply the required mens rea mandated under the AG Guidelines and Coalition; (3) New Jersey’s assault firearm law is unconstitutional per the United States Supreme Court’s decision in N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n. v. Bruen, 597 U.S. 1 (2022); and (4) per the United States Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, government must meet its burden that N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(8) is ‘consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation’ or else be struck as unconstitutional.

Ultimately, the Appellate Court determined that there was no basis to disturb either challenged order, and that the judge’s factual findings and legal conclusions in both matters were well supported by the uncontroverted expert testimony that Stitt provided during the forfeiture hearings. However, the court remanded the matters for the purpose of providing the parties the opportunity to develop the necessary record to address petitioners’ Second Amendment claims as to N.J.S.A. 2C:391(w) and N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(8), and the trial court be permitted to consider those claims under the paradigm recently enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in Bruen. The court then stressed the need for the development of a detailed record and analysis of New Jersey’s assault firearm laws in the context of the Second Amendment and the historical tradition of firearms regulation.

At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to defending against firearm forfeiture motions filed by the State against our clients. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of the petitioners in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington, Haddon Heights, Pine Hill, Bellmawr, Haddon Township, Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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