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No Felon Should Have Body Armor

SF CHRONICLE

Kamala D. Harris,George Gascón
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A California appeals court on Dec. 17 struck down our state's ban on violent felons possessing body armor. The court said that law was too confusing for the average violent felon to follow. Specifically, defendant Ethan Saleem, on parole for manslaughter and wearing a 10-pound bulletproof vest, couldn't be expected to know whether his particular brand of body armor was illegal or not.

Let's be very clear: The only reason a violent felon would need body armor is if he or she expects to get shot or intends to shoot someone else. This court has stripped peace officers of a vital, and frankly basic, protection from violent felons like Saleem. Such protection was why the law was enacted in the first place.

In 1994, protected by full body armor, Victor Boutwell, a heavily armed carjacking suspect, killed San Francisco police Officer James Guelff and wounded another officer in a horrific gunbattle that lasted 32 minutes. Boutwell's full body armor allowed him to fend off 120 armed police officers before ultimately being killed by a San Francisco police sniper.

Less than three years later, in North Hollywood, two bank robbers clothed themselves from head to toe in homemade body armor and engaged in an infamous hourlong gunbattle with 350 members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The police officers' bullets literally bounced off the armored gunmen, and 11 LAPD officers and at least seven civilians were wounded in the shootout.

Following these two terrible tragedies, the Legislature passed the James Guelff Body Armor Act of 1998, a prohibition on violent felons possessing body armor. Sadly, in just a few keystrokes, the courts have undone a basic protection provided to police for 11 years.

Unfortunately, the streets of California have not gotten any friendlier for police officers since 1998. At a November summit of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local police agencies, 50 percent of 166 police departments surveyed reported an increase in criminals using large-caliber handguns. Local police across the nation also reported that 37 percent have seen an increase in the use of assault weapons.

It is absolutely imperative that we undo this court's misguided decision and restore this important public policy. But we shouldn't stop there. There is exactly one type of body armor any felon should be able to own: none.

The recently struck-down law prohibited only certain violent felons from owning body armor. Drug dealers, people convicted of domestic violence and other felons were still free to own body armor. Felons can't own guns, and they can't own ammunition. They certainly shouldn't be able to shield themselves with body armor.

Since 1973, there have been nearly 3,000 incidents where police officers' lives were saved as a direct result of wearing body armor. Body armor serves one legitimate purpose: to protect the individuals who risk their lives to protect the public.

The law enforcement community banded together to call on the state attorney general's office to appeal this dangerous decision and, on Dec. 29, California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the state will take the case to the state Supreme Court. Now we need the courts and our leaders in Sacramento to show the same mettle.

The high court must overturn this lower-court ruling, and lawmakers must put forward legislation that not only clarifies but also strengthens the law. The ban on body armor should apply to all felons, not just violent felons. There should be no doubt that the safety of the men and women who patrol our streets comes above that of convicted felons.

Last updated: 7/15/2011 1:04:00 PM