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Williams v. Beemiller, Inc.

Supreme Court of New York, Erie

November 25, 2013

Daniel WILLIAMS, and Edward Williams, Plaintiffs,
v.
BEEMILLER, INC. d/b/a/ Hi-Point, Charles Brown, MKS Supply, Inc., International Gun-a-Rama, Kimberly Upshaw James Nigel Bostic, Cornell Caldwell, and John Doe Traffickers 1-10, Defendants.

[975 N.Y.S.2d 648] Terrence M. Connors, Esq., James M. Grable, Esq., Connors & Vilardo, LLP, for Plaintiffs.

Ryan Erdreich, Esq., Pisciotti, Malsch & Buckley, P.C., for Defendant MKS Supply.

Scott L. Braum, Esq., Scott L. Braum & Associates, Ltd., for Defendant Charles Brown.

Hedwig M. Auletta, Esq., Thomas J. Drury, Damon & Morey LLP, for Defendant Charles Brown.

Scott C. Allan, Esq., Renzulli Law Firm, LLP, for Defendant Beemiller, Inc.

FREDERICK J. MARSHALL, J.

Before the Court are Plaintiffs' motions to compel jurisdictional discovery, specifically answers to interrogatories and production of documents. The Court has issued oral rulings on all jurisdictional discovery issues but one: whether Defendants may be compelled to disclose information and documents related to firearm traces.

Plaintiffs' claims derive from an incident in 2003, when Defendant Cornell Caldwell shot Plaintiff Daniel Williams with a handgun in Buffalo, New York. In addition to Caldwell, plaintiffs brought this suit against Defendants Beemiller, Inc. d/b/a Hi-Point (Beemiller), MKS Supply, Inc. (MKS), and Charles Brown who are, respectively, the manufacturer, distributor, and retailer of the firearm used in the shooting. After Plaintiffs were granted jurisdictional discovery by the Appellate Division Fourth Department, they served Beemiller, MKS, and Brown with interrogatories and requests for document production. The demands seek information related to firearm trace data including, but not limited to, ATF-issued trace inquiries and firearm sales records.

Defendants object to Plaintiffs' demands for answers and documents related to firearm trace data on the grounds that the Tiahrt Amendment, a rider attached to Federal legislative appropriations bills, insulates the information from discovery in civil litigation. In fact, Defendants' interpretation of Tiahrt shields any ATF firearm trace data in their possession from discovery and use in this litigation. In opposition, Plaintiffs argue for a narrower reading of Tiahrt, limiting the Amendment to use by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Firearm Tracing

When law enforcement agencies recover firearms in criminal investigations, the recovering agency may place a tracing request with the ATF to identify the firearm's history. The ATF is the only federal agency authorized to conduct firearms tracing, and its National Tracing Center manages all requests, following traced firearms' chain of licensees— manufacturers, importers, and dealers.[1] Federal laws require firearm licensees to maintain " importation, production, shipment, receipt, sale, or other disposition" records, which they must disclose to the ATF upon request. 18 U.S.C. ยง 923(g)(1)(A). After receiving information from all licensees responsible for the traced firearm, the ATF summarizes the data and remits a trace report to the requesting law enforcement agency.

[975 N.Y.S.2d 649] The Tiahrt Amendment

In 2003, Congress attached the first " Tiahrt Amendment" to an appropriations bill funding the ATF. The provision restricts the ATF and third parties from disclosing firearm tracing information to parties other than law enforcement agencies. Though case law concerning the Tiahrt Amendment is limited, Federal courts have evaluated the appropriations rider in assessing trace data requests made by civil litigants directly to the ATF. See, e.g., City of Chicago v. United States Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 423 F.3d 777 (7th Cir.2005) (refusing plaintiffs' Freedom of Information Act request made to the ATF for trace data); City of New York v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 429 F.Supp.2d 517 (E.D.N.Y.2006) (acknowledging Tiahrt's ban on future trace disclosures but allowing disclosures already made). However, no court has yet determined whether a firearm licensee can be compelled to disclose trace data.

Since 2003, Congress has renewed and lengthened the Tiahrt Amendment, and its most recent iteration as applicable to this lawsuit reads:

" [D]uring the current fiscal year and in each fiscal year thereafter, no funds appropriated under this or any other Act may be used to disclose contents of the Firearms Trace System database maintained by the [ATF] or any information required to be kept by [firearm] licensees except to: (1) a Federal, State, local, or tribal law enforcement agency, or a Federal, State, or local prosecutor; or (2) a foreign law enforcement agency solely in connection with or for use in a criminal investigation or prosecution; or (3) a Federal agency for a national security or intelligence purpose. [N]o person or entity described in (1), (2) or (3) shall knowingly and publicly disclose such data; and all such data shall be immune from legal process, shall not be subject to subpoena or other discovery, shall be inadmissible in evidence, and shall not be used, relied on, or disclosed in any manner, nor shall ...

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