Recently, either in the media, the Internet, or elsewhere, you may have heard about a court decision regarding possession of a firearm in a post office parking lot. Some news outlets have titled their stories “YOU CAN CARRY IN THE POST OFFICE PARKING LOT – NEW COURT DECISION!”
We at Texas Law Shield wanted to give you a closer look at the decision, and what this means for you. To provide a short answer, this heavily fact based opinion of a U.S. District Court in Colorado does not currently provide any legal protection for those of us in Texas. At best, it provides an argument that can be used should you get arrested and hauled into court. To provide a greater understanding of what happened, we first need to understand the court decision itself, and the legal concept of precedence.
The Colorado Federal District Court Decision
The case in question is Bonidy, et al. v. USPS. In this case, the court was asked to make a very specific ruling. A man named Tab Bonidy wanted a ruling as to whether or not it was legal to keep a gun in his car while he was at the post office. He was challenging the application of 39 CFR Part 232.1(l), which reads as follows:
Weapons and explosives. No person while on postal property may carry firearms, other dangerous or deadly weapons, or explosives, either openly or concealed, or store the same on postal property, except for official purposes.
In light of the law above, one should consider the very peculiar circumstances of Avon, Colorado:
– The post office does not provide delivery to the public
– They provide free post office boxes to Avon residents
– These post office boxes are the only method of retrieving mail
The judge recognized these facts in his decision which only applies to this post office’s particular facts, and none others – yet. Further, the judge pointed out additional factors to consider in determine whether or not to allow firearms in car trunks, such as: does the post office parking lot have restrictions (i.e., is it fenced in with a gate, are there signs imposing time limits or stating that vehicles are subject to search), are there outside mail receptacles for patrons, what type of government business is done there (loading of post office vehicles), and do high numbers of people congregate in the post office for other purposes?
The U.S. District Court of Colorado held that concealed carry license holders are allowed to have a firearm in their locked trunk, or have it otherwise secured in their vehicle under these circumstances. This does not mean a person can concealed carry on their body in the parking lot, or open carry.
For those not visiting this post office in Avon, the decision made by the court definitely does not set the law of the land. It repeatedly touched on the fact that there should be no general rules (either for or against firearm carrying). Until the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issues an opinion, there is no general rule or guidelines for the Colorado Post Offices other than the current federal law in 39 CFR 232.1(l).
Precedent: Does the ruling set any legal precedent for other parts of the country? NO.
Precedent is going to be a rule, guideline, or other legal principle established by case law that is binding on other courts when there is a case with similar issues or facts. To put it another way, precedent is best illustrated when a court makes a decision guided by previous rulings. With that said, there are two types of precedent: horizontal and vertical.
Vertical is the traditionally considered concept of precedent; when a higher court dictates their interpretation of the law in a certain fact scenario, a lower court may not overrule their decisions. For example, the Texas Supreme Court is the highest civil state court, and any precedent set at that level must be followed by the Courts of Appeal and the trial courts in Texas. Similarly, decisions by the Courts of Appeal are binding on the Texas trial courts. Federal courts are similarly structured; District Courts should respect the precedence of the Circuit Courts of Appeal, and both must follow the precedence set by the United States Supreme Court.
However, this is where things can get complicated. Federal appellate level courts are divided into different circuits. To illustrate, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, while Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are in the 10th Circuit. A decision in a circuit is binding only on federal courts in that circuit. So, a case that originates in Louisiana is taken to the 5th Circuit; the decision of the 5th Circuit in that case is then binding on Federal district courts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Horizontal precedence is the relation (or lack thereof) between courts on the same level. The decisions made by different circuits, while they can be used as persuasive arguments, are not binding on other circuits. Therefore, a decision made by the 10th Circuit will not bind the 5th Circuit; similarly, federal district courts in Texas will not be bound by the decisions made in the 10th Circuit or U.S. District Courts in the 10th Circuit.
Those are a lot of words, but what do they mean for us in this situation? The decision made by the Colorado federal district court is not binding on a Texas federal district court, nor on any other district courts. If the 10th Circuit makes a decision, however, it will be binding on federal district courts in Colorado, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. This Colorado case can only be used as an argument in other courts, including those in Texas.
Ultimately, this decision is a fantastic first step in possibly expanding a right that seems to shrink more and more every day. The case has already been appealed to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, as Mr. Bonidy was not content with just the parking lot and wants to pursue open carrying in the actual building of the post office. We will keep you informed of how this case turns out, and whether or not you’ll see any expansion on where you can legally carry your concealed handgun in Colorado and beyond.