Gun license applicant's appeal reveals Boston police unwritten policy

Department gave preference for unrestricted licenses to officers and attorneys

By Kris Olson
BridgeTower Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA - Richard Phipps thought his request was reasonable enough.

The victim of an armed robbery at his small retail business in Dudley Square in Roxbury, Phipps wanted a gun license so that he might better defend himself if another dangerous criminal darkened his door.

Little did he know that he would be embarking on an odyssey, one that, after nearly six years, ended with vindication, courtesy of the Appeals Court.

In April 2013, Phipps made his initial foray to the Dorchester police station. There, he met Officer Angela Coleman of the firearms licensing unit. Coleman interviewed him briefly and took his handwritten license application.

In the process of inputting Phipps' information into the police department computer, Coleman typed "sport and target" as the basis of Phipps' license request, even though he wanted a gun for personal protection.

Coleman responded that it was department policy to grant first-time applicants who are neither police officers nor attorneys restricted licenses, she explained. Removing the restriction would be a simple matter of writing a letter to her boss, Lt. Detective John McDonough, she said.

About five months later, Phipps received his target-and-hunting-only license. On Sept. 30, he did as Coleman had suggested, penning a missive to McDonough, explaining that he was a business owner and crime victim who regularly made deposits of large sums of money and frequently visited high-crime areas in Roxbury and Dorchester and thus needed an unrestricted license.

McDonough replied a little over a week later, denying Phipps' request. Without elaborating, McDonough stated that Phipps had not demonstrated a "proper purpose" for holding an unrestricted license.

In a follow-up phone call, McDonough agreed to have Phipps come down to the station to discuss the matter further. But when Phipps arrived, McDonough asked him for his license and proceeded to pocket it. Phipps tried to explain that Coleman had given him the impression that the restriction on his license was "just a formality."

McDonough then turned the conversation to Phipps' past court involvement, which had never led to a conviction but entailed a series of mostly nonviolent, minor criminal charges between 2005 and 2010. McDonough quizzed Phipps on how often he had been arraigned. When Phipps responded "four or five times," McDonough took that as an attempt by Phipps to downplay his record.

Phipps' probation report showed that, between May 2005 and December 2010, he had appeared in court for arraignment eight times on a total of 20 charges, all of which were eventually dismissed.

For McDonough, that was the last straw. He told Phipps he was no longer a suitable holder of a firearms license, restricted or otherwise. The Boston police commissioner followed up with a letter formally revoking Phipps' license, stating that Phipps had "changed his account" of his interaction with Coleman and twice understated the extent of his criminal record.

A Boston Municipal Court judge denied Phipps' initial appeal of his license revocation without making any findings of fact or rulings of law.

Phipps then filed a petition under G.L.c. 249, §4, with the Supreme Judicial Court, which transferred the action to the Superior Court. Both Phipps and the commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings; the Superior Court judge sided with the commissioner, upholding the license revocation.

But now, the Appeals Court has said that was a mistake.

"Because Phipps has demonstrated by substantial evidence his need to protect himself and his retail business, and because the department failed to show that it restricted and revoked his license to carry a firearm for objective reasons related to public safety, the department was without reasonable grounds to conclude he was an unsuitable person to possess a firearm for any lawful purpose," Judge Edward J. McDonough Jr. writes on the panel's behalf, calling the commissioner's actions "arbitrary and capricious."

The Appeals Court's order calls for the Superior Court to reinstate Phipps' license to carry a firearm, "without restriction, for any lawful purpose," though the commissioner could still seek further appellate review.

Published: Mon, Feb 18, 2019