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Police legally seized rifle, ammunition from former State Senate candidate, judge says

LOCKPORT – The seizure of an assault rifle and ammunition from the hatchback of former State Senate candidate Gia M. Arnold was lawful, a judge ruled Monday.

Arnold, 27, lost a Republican Senate primary in Niagara and Orleans counties in 2014 while calling for the repeal of New York's SAFE Act gun control law.

State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski ruled that Niagara Falls police did nothing wrong when they took the AR-15 rifle and an ammunition clip from Arnold's Pontiac Vibe. Police stopped the vehicle Feb. 10, 2016, at 15th Street and Haeberle Avenue in the Falls for failure to correctly signal a turn.

The vehicle was driven by Halim Johnson, 19, of the Falls, identified as Arnold's boyfriend.

Michalski said police are allowed to search a vehicle during a traffic stop if they believe weapons are present. One of three police officers who testified at a pretrial hearing said he saw an ammunition magazine next to Arnold, now a Rochester resident.

The judge said Arnold told Johnson not to answer police questions and continually interrupted the officer trying to ask questions, and she also disobeyed the officer's instructions to keep her hands on the dashboard. Police arrested her for obstructing governmental administration. When an officer opened the passenger side door of the Vibe to take Arnold into custody, he found the rifle.

Michalski said he will allow the prosecution to use Arnold's admission that the gun belonged to her.

The judge also allowed Johnson's comment to a fellow inmate at the Falls city jail, overheard by an officer, in which he said the AR-15 with a 30-round clip was illegal.

Johnson's attorney, James J. Faso Jr., said both defendants have been offered a chance to plead guilty to attempted second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a felony carrying a maximum seven-year prison term. Faso said because it was Arnold's gun, "We're never going to take a plea."

James M. Ostrowski, who is Arnold's lawyer, said a plea isn't on his radar because he still will try to have the case dismissed on Second Amendment grounds or by arguing that the SAFE Act violates due process.

"The statute is incomprehensible to anyone who's not a firearms expert," he said.

Niagara County Assistant District Attorney Claudette S. Caldwell said Arnold and Johnson are not charged with violating the SAFE Act because the charges only pertain to the rifle, not the magazine.

The sides are to return to court April 21 to select a trial date.

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