Vermont prosecutors put new 'red flag' law to the test

Published: Dec. 7, 2018 at 4:38 PM EST
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Washington County prosecutors this week employed a new legal tool -- part of the new gun laws that went into effect earlier this year.

It's called an extreme risk protection order. It stems from the case of the Harwood Union High School custodian, Dick Peck, who is accused of writing a threat on the boy's bathroom mirror.

Because of that -- and the fact that he has access to multiple firearms -- the prosecutors have asked the judge for an extreme risk protection order to remove his access to dangerous weapons because he's considered a risk to himself and others.

What qualifies as a dangerous weapon? The law says firearms or explosives only. And when an order is granted, a person has to surrender all of them to police, a firearms dealer, or a person approved by the court. The law says the owner can't get their weapons back until after the order is lifted.

The Vermont Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs says the new law has been sought 18 times so far and approved for most of them.

The first one granted was in the Jack Sawyer case in April, after alleged threats against Fair Haven Union High School. However, if it only lasts for six-months, the protection order against Sawyer would have expired in October.

So what happens after six-months? The law says it can be renewed for another six-months if the person still is deemed an extreme risk. The law does not say what happens after that second renewal. That may be something the legislature clarifies down the line.

Once it's granted, who enforces the order? Vermont State Police said they would enforce those orders in the areas they cover and local authorities would cover their own jurisdictions.

The law states that violating an order would lead to a fine and/or up to a year in jail. But there are ways that people could get around the law if they wanted, and that remains a concern for some.

Washington County State's Attorney's office officials say as of Friday morning the order regarding the Harwood suspect had not been granted yet.