Man sues St. Joseph County entities over gun issue

A man who was denied entry to a poll location on May 8 because he carried a gun is now suing several St. Joseph County entities. (August 23, 2012)

An attorney representing a man who claims he was improperly denied access to a polling place because he was carrying a gun filed a lawsuit Wednesday in St. Joseph Superior Court against the county Election Board and other various parties, including the County Police Department and Board of Commissioners and the Warren Township Board of Trustees and Fire Department.

The lawsuit, filed by Zionsville-based attorney Guy Relford on behalf of Warren Township resident Clay Edinger, a former U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran, seeks damages, attorney's fees, court costs, and other relief related to the county's policy regarding the possession of firearms inside polling places.

According to the lawsuit, on May 8, primary election day, poll workers at Warren Township Fire Station No. 2, citing state law, denied Edinger, a registered voter, access to the polls because he was carrying a gun.

Edinger, who holds a valid license to carry a handgun in the state, researched the law and returned later in the afternoon, the lawsuit states, only to be denied access a second time for the same reason.

The lawsuit claims that the poll workers acted at the direction of the county Election Board and Board of Commissioners, and that a county police officer and a member of the township fire department participated in enforcing the action.

"No legal justification existed for defendants, through their agents and/or employees, to deny plaintiff his right to vote while carrying a legally-possessed and legally-carried firearm," the lawsuit states, citing a 2011 state law that prohibits most local regulation of firearms.

Outside of damages, listed in the in the lawsuit as the greater of the following: (1) actual damages, including consequential damages, or (2) three times the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees, the lawsuit seeks:

  • Declaratory relief in the form of a declaratory judgment finding the policy that led to Edinger being denied access to the polling place to be void and unenforceable;
  • Injunctive relief ordering the defendants to refrain from enforcing the policy or any other similar measure that violates the state's gun law; and
  • Other such relief as the court deems just and proper.

Individuals representing four of the five defendants in the case – the County Police Department and Board of Commissioners and the Warren Township Board of Trustees and Fire Department – declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday as a matter of policy.

Jim Korpal, head of the county Election Board, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment on the lawsuit.

In general, state law prohibits local governments from enacting laws prohibiting the possession of firearms in public buildings or spaces, including parks and most government buildings.

Courthouses and buildings connected to courthouses, such as the County-City Building in South Bend, are excluded, as are some other buildings.

County police spokesman Lt. Matt Blank told The Tribune in May that guns are not allowed inside polling places.

Reached by phone Thursday, Relford, a certified firearms instructor whose practice, based in Zionsville, Ind., is dedicated to gun-related legal issues, said he filed the lawsuit to ensure that, in the future, his client's rights as a voter and gun owner are protected and not violated.

"The actions of the Election Board and officials on site there ... all clearly violated the new Indiana firearms preemption act," he said, "where, essentially, local governments, absent a few very restrictive exceptions, are not allowed to regulate firearms."

Commenting on his personal interest in the case, Relford made note of Edinger's past service to the country.

"Part of the reason I think this lawsuit is warranted – I mean this man did a tour in Iraq defending our constitutional liberties with a gun," he said, "and he comes back from Iraq, and after protecting our rights and our liberties, St. Joseph County officials deny him one of the fundamental liberties that he put his life in danger protecting."

 

Staff writer Erin Blasko:

eblasko@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6187