Judge backs Florida teacher with gun in truck

South Florida SunSentinel | By Jim Saunders | June 20, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — An administrative law judge Tuesday said a teacher should keep his job after the St. Lucie County School Board moved to fire him for leaving an AK-47 rifle on the center console of his truck in a school parking lot.

Judge Robert Kilbride, in a 25-page decision siding with teacher Joel Potts, cited a law that gives authority over gun regulations to the state and what he described as an “unenforceable and infirm” school-board policy aimed at keeping guns off campus.

“The Florida Legislature has preempted all issues regarding possession and use of firearms in Florida,” Kilbride wrote. “Under its statutory scheme, carrying or storing a firearm in respondent’s (Potts’) parked vehicle did not constitute unauthorized possession of it, and respondent’s actions were protected. The simple and straightforward conclusion is that the firearm policy enacted by the School Board is unenforceable and cannot serve as the basis to conclude that respondent violated the policy. As a result, respondent enjoyed the benefit of the Florida law which permits an individual to carry a securely encased firearm or one that is not otherwise readily available for immediate use, in his vehicle.”

The case stemmed from a passer-by on Sept. 2 seeing the gun in Potts’ truck and reporting it to a school-resource officer at Dale Cassens Education Complex, an alternative school in Fort Pierce. The gun was not loaded, but 39 rounds of ammunition were in a plastic bag in the console, according to Tuesday’s ruling.

After a recommendation from Superintendent Jon Prince, the School Board approved what is known as a “petition for termination of employment,” with the issue then going to the state Division of Administration Hearings.

The School Board contended that Potts, who was suspended without pay, violated policies that prevent possessing guns on school property. Also, it pointed to a state law designed to keep guns off school campuses.

“Respondent, Mr. Potts, drove to work and parked right outside the front entrance of Dale Cassens Education Complex,” the school board said in a document filed May 31. “He left an AK-47 style firearm in plain view on the center console of his vehicle visible to anyone passing by his vehicle. Underneath his firearm he left 39 rounds of ammunition. Respondent voluntarily admitted the firearm was real and he left the firearm on the center console in plain view when he arrived to school for work. The respondent’s possession of his AK-47 style firearm on school grounds constitutes a violation (of the policies).”

But Kilbride said a state law allows people to have guns in their vehicles “if the firearm or other weapon is securely encased or is otherwise not readily accessible for immediate use.”

“Here, the firearm was unloaded and the ammunition rounds were in the closed center console, secured in a wrapped plastic bag with some rounds further stored away in a manufacturer’s cardboard box,” the judge wrote. “The delayed and multi-step process required to make respondent’s firearm ‘readily accessible for immediate use’ is obvious and self-evident.”

Kilbride wrote that there “can be no doubt that the School Board’s firearm policy is well-intended and addresses valid and real school safety concerns.” But he said the policy conflicts with state appellate-court rulings about guns in vehicles.

Under administrative law, Kilbride’s ruling is a recommended order that must go back to the School Board for final action. He recommended that the board withdraw the suspension and restore back pay and benefits.

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