||05-24-2011 08:35 PM
After Altercation, Philadelphia Police Say They Won't Look the Other Way on Open-Carry Gun Owners
By Stephen Clark
With a shocking altercation between Philadelphia police and a 25-year-old IT worker putting the spotlight back on open-carry gun laws, local authorities are warning gun owners that they will be "inconvenienced" if they carry unconcealed handguns in the city.
Lt. Raymond Evers, a spokesman for the city police, told FoxNews.com that gun owners who open carry, which is legal in the city, may be asked to lay on the ground until officers feel safe while they check permits.
"Philadelphia, in certain areas, is very dangerous," he said. "There's a lot of gun violence." Several officers have been killed in the line of duty in the past three years, local authorities say.
The warning comes after Mark Fiorino, a suburban Philadelphia IT worker, posted an audiotape to YouTube of his tense, 45-minute encounter with police in February over his exposed handgun. The video went viral and captured national attention.
After Fiorino released the audiotape, he was charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. He now faces up to two years in prison.
"The police department and assistant district attorney are coming after me, in my opinion, to make an example of me because I stood up to them and exposed them for their lack of knowledge," Fiorino said, who called the trial "absolutely inappropriate and a waste of taxpayer money."
Fiorino said he did nothing reckless, nor did he endanger anyone's life.
"I had a gun pointed at my chest," he said.
Only seven states ban the practice of openly carrying guns, and Pennsylvania isn't one of them, according to OpenCarry.org, which advocates gun rights. In Philadelphia, a permit is required to carry handguns openly. But on Feb. 13 a police sergeant who was unaware of the law -- which dates back to at least 1996 when the state Supreme Court referenced it in an unrelated ruling -- stopped Fiorino, who was walking to an auto parts shop in Northeast Philadelphia with a gun on his hip.
Sgt. Michael Dougherty can be heard yelling out to Fiorino as "Junior," and asking him to show his hands as Fiorino protests having a gun pointed at his chest, prompting Dougherty to call for backup.
Dougherty grows increasingly agitated as Fiorino offers to show his permit when he is ordered to get on his knees, causing Dougherty to threaten to shoot if he makes a move. Dougherty then unleashed a string of profanities as the two argued over the legality of open carry.
"Do you know you can't openly carry here in Philadelphia?" Dougherty yells.
"Yes, you can, if you have a license to carry firearms," Fiorino responds."It's Directive 137. It's your own internal directive."
When several other officers arrive, Fiorino is forced to the ground as he tries to explain that he's not breaking the law.
"Shut the f---- up!" Dougherty yells.
Police found the recorder while searching Fiorino's pockets. Officers eventually released him after speaking to the department's lawyer and being told that he was within his legal rights.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey took issue with Dougherty's language and his lack of knowledge about the law during the altercation, Evers said, but not with the stop itself.
Evers, who has been an officer for nearly 20 years, said "very rarely do people open carry in Philadelphia." But he added he wasn't making excuses.
"We weren't as up on that crime code as we should have been," he said, adding that officers are being re-educated on open carry in response to the incident.
Dougherty is facing disciplinary action pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation, Evers said.
Fiorino's trial is scheduled to begin in July and the district attorney's office emphasizes that Fiorino's response to the police, not his gun rights, are at issue.
"This office respects and upholds the rights of a citizen to lawfully carry a firearm," Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said in a statement emailed to FoxNews.com. "The permit to carry a concealed weapon, however, does not mean that a permitholder can abuse that right by refusing to cooperate with police."
Jamerson said Fiorino "allegedly became belligerent and hostile" when police officers "were legally attempting to investigate a potential crime."
But Fiorino's attorney, Joseph Valvo, said the case is larger than Fiorino.
"It's my position that this entire prosecution is an effort by Philadelphia authorities to send a message to legitimate gun owners that open carry as a practice is not welcome in Philadelphia despite the fact that it's constitutionally protected behavior and that's offensive to me as a citizen and as a lawyer," Valvo said.
Gun rights advocates say they're are also offended.
John Pierce, a co-founder of OpenCarry.org said, Philadelphia police have sent a clear message to gun owners that will chill their rights to openly carry.
"Even if it's legal, we can punish you financially and by disruptions in your life," he said.
But the district attorney's office dismissed as "ludicrous" claims it is seeking retaliation or trying to send a message.
"This office only charges people with offenses that we think we can prosecute," Jamerson said in an interview with FoxNews.com. "We just don't willy-nilly charge a person with a crime as retaliation for an incident."
The February incident wasn't the first time Philadelphia police officers have confronted Fiorino about his unconcealed gun. Since July, he has been stopped twice and he has had an audio recorder on him each time in case a cop is having a bad day or doesn't understand the law, he said.
His handgun was confiscated once for five months, but neither occasion escalated like the third encounter.
Fiorino said he studied Pennsylvania law for a year before he started openly carrying a gun. He said he carries the gun openly because some of his friends have been held up at gunpoint and he's not willing to allow himself to be helpless.
Police spokesman Evers said Fiorino appears to be inviting trouble from the law by "surreptitiously" recording his encounters with police.
"If you put everything together, it was more than him walking down the street to go to an auto parts store -- without a jacket in the middle of winter," Evers said.
But Fiorino denies that he was looking for trouble.
"How many times does a convenience store need to be robbed to be justified in putting up a security system?" he said.