DAVE COLLINS,Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — State and local officials have been collecting a $50 fee for temporary pistol permit applications since 2009 despite having no authority to do so, fleecing gun owners out of more than $1 million, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of everyone who has paid the charge.
Torrington auto dealership owner James Utecht is suing the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection and Torrington Police Chief Michael Maniago over the fees. He’s seeking damages from the state agency and wants a judge to order Maniago to give refunds to all applicants for temporary pistol permits.
The fees are collected by city and municipal officials and given to the state for background checks on the applicants. Local officials decide whether to approve the 60-day temporary permits, which allow people to get five-year pistol permits from the department.
Utecht protested the $50 fee when he applied for a temporary permit with the Torrington police department last year. His attorney, Rachel Baird, filed the lawsuit in Litchfield Superior Court on May 31 and it was transferred to federal court last week.
Baird said the state agency unilaterally decided to start charging the fee on Oct. 1, 2009, despite having no authority under Connecticut law to do so. While the department can charge $50 for background checks, municipalities are exempt from the fees and they are the ones requesting the background checks, Baird said.
“They need to be called out on it, and basically that’s what this lawsuit does,” Baird said Tuesday. “It’s problematic because when it’s an amount that’s minimal like $50, the chances are that no one’s going to file a lawsuit and they’ll just pay it and not ask questions.”
Baird said the fee is a violation of people’s constitutional right to due process.
The state attorney general’s office, which is representing department Commissioner Reuben Bradford in the lawsuit, issued a statement Tuesday but declined to comment on the allegations.
“The office of the attorney general is reviewing the complaint and will respond at the appropriate time in court,” the statement said.
Messages seeking comment were left Tuesday for Utecht, Maniago and Maniago’s lawyer.
Baird said the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection proposed legislation this year that would have allowed the agency to collect the $50 fee from municipalities issuing the temporary permits. She said that was proof that department officials knew they had no authority to tell municipalities to collect the fees from applicants. The bill died during the legislative session that ended last week.
Baird notified all cities and towns last year that the fee was improper and they should stop collecting it. She said she and one of her investigators, Edward Peruta, have been questioning the fee for the past few years.
Baird also claims in the lawsuit that the department destroyed public records regarding the origin and authority of the $50 fee, shortly after a Freedom of Information request by Peruta last year.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a department spokesman, referred questions about the lawsuit to the attorney general’s office
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