SAN DIEGO — Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) are meant to protect the public from dangerous gun owners. So, you might expect the names of the gun owners targeted by local GVROs would be publicly available. But that’s not always the case.
Some gun violence restraining orders are kept secret, even though they are associated with high-profile cases.
Because the GVRO cases are sealed or redacted, members of the public cannot find the cases when searching by name on the San Diego County Court website.
CBS 8 started investigating secret gun violence restraining orders after San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott filed one under seal against Larry Millete, only identifying him by his initials: “L.M.”
“I can tell you that I've read the gun violence restraining order statute. There is no place in there which says that you have use initials instead of the full name of the person. There's no place that says, you have to keep these proceedings secret,” said San Diego attorney Eugene Iredale, who has defended clients against GVRO petitions.
Larry Millete currently is in custody and charged with the murder of his wife, Maya Millete. Last year, CBS 8 hired an attorney and filed a motion to get Millete’s GVRO unsealed and made public.
California law allows police agencies to file gun violence restraining orders in civil court and, following a hearing before a judge, confiscate a person's firearms if they are found to be a danger to themselves or the community.
“It’s designed to prevent unnecessary harm or death by persons who are dangerous and to allow the intervention before a tragedy occurs,” Iredale said.
The San Diego City Attorney's office frequently represents the San Diego Police Department in GVRO hearings.
Records showed the City Attorney’s office has filed more than a dozen GVROs under seal with the names of gun owners identified only by their initials. In some cases, the declaration in support of the GVRO petition also is sealed.
Iredale said there may be justification for sealing a GVRO before the GVRO is served on the gun owner. But once the respondent is aware of the civil action against him, the records should be public.
“When they make the motion to seal initially, it should be limited in time to that period of time that can be justified. And frankly, after the issuance and service of the temporary restraining order, there is no basis for continuing to have this made secret,” said Iredale.
One of the GVRO cases currently sealed at the request of the City Attorney was filed in July against a gun owner identified in the petition as “T.C.” His name and address were redacted.
In the petition, a San Diego police detective declared under penalty of perjury that T.C. posted violent threats on social media under the username, “The Liberal Terminator.”
“[Respondent] is possibly plotting to commit violent acts against Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, LGBTQ community members, politicians, liberals, and employees of Instagram in furtherance of his racially and ethnically motivated extremist (RMVE) ideology. Based on my investigation, I believe respondent would be involved in a mass casualty event soon. Respondent has a firearm registered to him,” according to the SDPD detective’s declaration.
CBS 8 did some digging and discovered T.C. had a related misdemeanor criminal case, where his name is not redacted. Alpine resident Timothy Caruthers, Jr, age 23, pleaded guilty in December to having a concealed firearm in a vehicle.
“The firearm has already been seized and he is in agreement that it be destroyed,” his defense attorney, Gregory Garrison, said in court during Caruther's change of plea hearing.
Caruthers' gun violence restraining order hearing has been continued several times. The case (37-2021-00032486) is set for a hearing in March in downtown San Diego County Superior Court, civil division.
Caruthers' two attorneys -- he is co-represented by his mother, according to court records -- did not respond to a request for comment.
The San Diego City Attorney’s office also has filed secret gun violence restraining orders against four men involved in an anti-Trump rally last year in Pacific Beach. Their names are redacted and the petitions sealed.
During a GVRO hearing in December, Judge Anthony Campagna ordered CBS 8 not to show video of the four respondents’ faces in court.
Again, all four men are named in an associated, high-profile criminal case, where they are charged with felony conspiracy to riot. They are identified in the criminal case as Jeremy White, 39; Bryan Rivera, 20; Faraz Martin Talab, 27; and Luis Mora, 30.
Their criminal cases and as well as their sealed GVRO case are ongoing. Their defense attorneys either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment from CBS 8.
Last year, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott received $1 million in state funding to train agencies throughout California on the proper way to file gun violence restraining orders.
Elliott declined to be interviewed for this report, but a spokesperson issued the following written statement to CBS 8:
“Our Office files GVROs on behalf of the San Diego Police Department under seal in very limited circumstances:
- To protect minors,
- To protect crime victims,
- To protect an ongoing criminal investigation by the law enforcement agency requesting the GVRO, and
- To protect the law enforcement personnel who will serve the order on the respondent.
For example, one GVRO respondent, in the midst of obtaining a concealed carry weapon permit, posted many messages and photographs on social media threatening to commit violent acts upon persons of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and politicians, and used hate speech in combination with threats to kill. We filed that GVRO under seal to protect the public and law enforcement safety prior to serving him with the court order.
Motions to seal must be granted by a judge, and our motion clearly states that the seal is to be lifted (a) upon service of the order or (b) following the first court appearance. Through the Millette case we learned that the court believes that a motion to unseal is required which the respondent can oppose. As we believe the seal should be lifted automatically as outlined in the original order, we are working with the court to find a solution in which seals are lifted without the need for a motion."
As it stands now, once a GVRO is sealed, it remains sealed unless a member of the public or the news media hires an attorney and files a motion to unseal it, as happened in the Millete GVRO case.
Attorney Iredale disagreed with that costly and cumbersome process to gain access to court records, which by state law are presumed to be public.
“It's inappropriate to say to someone, 'Well you have a legal right to this, and we don't really have a continuing basis to keep this information secret, but if you want to make it open, you have to pay. You have to go through the trouble,’” Iredale said. “The fact is that unless they show the justification for continuing to have it sealed, it should be unsealed.”