Thursday, February 6, 2014

Can a big company get a protection order against someone who shot at their building?

Nobody argues with this part:  a guy with a gun fired off five shots with a pistol on the grounds of ConAgra’s headquarters in downtown Omaha. It was 5 A.M. and nobody got hurt, but it was a close call for the window washing crew on duty. The guy with the gun was apparently mad at his wife who had filed for divorce. She’s a manager at Con Agra and wasn't there at time. She’d already gotten a protection order against him.  The guy with the gun was hauled off, found guilty, and spent a few weeks in jail. This all happened early last year.

Here’s the part that landed this before the Nebraska Supreme Court: Should Con Agra be allowed to get a permanent restraining order against the guy with the gun? Right now it’s pretty much untested in Nebraska law. A person… like the wife of the guy with the gun… can get protection. It’s murky if an entity, like a multi-national, agri-business conglomerate, has the same privilege.    

The second big question: even if Con Agra could get a restraining order, is what the guy with the gun did that morning bad enough to warrant the court ordering him to stay off any of their properties for a year. A district court judge in Douglas County already said no to ConAgra. 

The Nebraska Supreme Court was asked to throw out the lower courts decision and both sides had their day in court today.  

      Here’s ConAgra's case:

  • Ryan Zimmerman (the guy who had the gun) became a threat the minute he pulled the trigger. As Con Agra argued in its court filing:  “firing a single shot on land owned by another should be held to be sufficient; firing five shots should be held to be more than enough for an injunction in this case.”
  • There were other reasons: police seized seven rifles and three handguns from him, and a judge issued protection orders keeping him away from his wife, his kids, and a friend of his wife. 
  • ConAgra sent Zimmerman what’s called a ban and bar letter. (Click here to read how the Omaha Police Department handles these cases).  ConAgra says that only goes so far. A restraining order adds the power of the courts, sending an even stronger message with stronger penalties.

Here’s Zimmerman's case: 

  • ConAgra isn’t at risk anymore. There was only one incident at ConAgra and the wife hasn’t reported any violations of her protection order since the gunplay. The brief filed in the case calls it “a theoretical injury.” 
  • If Zimmerman violates the conditions of the ban and bar letter he could be thrown in jail anyway.
  •  As a matter of law it’s too big a change in how these things have been historically handled in Nebraska.  Neither side could find any substantial cases in this state in which a corporation got this kind of restraining order. 

Justice William Cassel wondered aloud during the session if ConAgra wasn’t asking the high court to reverse 100 years of legal precedent. 

One of the justices, appearing genuinely perplexed, asked Zimmerman’s attorney why his client was “contesting this so vigorously?” The attorney, Mike Wilson, replied “There are notions of justice in play here” that went beyond fighting against a restraining order. After all, Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t even have any need to visit ConAgra.

We’ll have the court’s decision posted here when it comes out, probably in three or four months.