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by Chuck Echenique

Mickey Mouse gnaws at 2nd Amendment

As many of you know, the State of Florida recently passed a law reaffirming that all persons have the right to keep and bear arms in their motor vehicles. The law – which went into effect on July 1, 2008 – specifically allows all persons having a concealed weapons permit to lawfully carry a weapon in their vehicle at almost any place and time for the purposes of self defense.

The exceptions are that guns are still not allowed on school grounds, government properties or any business where national defense, aerospace or public security is the primary function. There is also an exemption for business whose primary function is the keeping and/or storing of fuel or explosives. On July 3, 2008, 13-year veteran Disney security guard Edwin Sotomayor drove 23 miles from his home through increased crime areas of Orlando to his job at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, carrying with him his cased personal side arm.

Upon his arrival, he refused to allow other security personnel to search his vehicle and declined to cooperate in their investigation of his private property. Some three hours later he was removed from his post, suspended from his duties at the theme park for his lack of cooperation and sent home. He was suspended from work until July 7 when Walt Disney World announced that the 36-year-old had been fired for violating three Disney employee policies, “essentially for failing to cooperate with an internal investigation,” said spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez.

Disney had advised its employees in late June, just before the law took effect, that the theme-park resort was exempt from the new state law, and that they could not bring firearms onto the property. Disney stated that its gun policy was based on safety concerns for visitors and employees. In explaining their actions, Disney stated that they are exempt from this new law because they store fireworks on premises. For the record, Animal Kingdom does not have any pyrotechnical displays as the noise and explosions would surely disturb the animals.

Sotomayor alerted Orlando-area media later that week that he intended to challenge Disney’s claim of an exemption to the new law by bringing a gun to work, locked in his vehicle. Now, I’m not an attorney, but I know a little about the law. While many of you know my background as an avid outdoorsman, guide and call maker, my professional title is that of private investigator and licensed insurance adjuster.

Most of my days are spent dealing with insurance companies, attorneys and the courts. And while civil liberties and criminal law are not my strong suit, I do have occasion to cross over into those areas from time to time. The legal side of my mind kicked into overdrive after the firing. What legal avenues does the security guard have in pursuing justice? You actually have three issues at stake in this one case.

Generally speaking, they are: a wrongful termination case against Disney in civil court, a Second Amendment case on the right to bear arms and a Fourth Amendment case on illegal search and seizure. We must realize that a wrongful termination action, (if successful) would be a big blow against Disney, but only a small step toward the bigger issues of constitutional law. If Mr. Sotomayor can prove that Disney terminated his employment for either carrying the gun in his car, or for his refusal to allow an illegal search of his private property, he has a very strong case against Disney for either, if not both, of the amendment violations.

In order for the wrongful termination suit to be valid, Mr. Sotomayor has to have been terminated for simply having the gun in his vehicle or on his person, in his car. The fact that Disney has signs posted all over employee areas about their security measures and random vehicle searches neither gives Disney the power to conduct those searches, nor the ability to terminate his employment based on lack of cooperation with company policy – more commonly known as insubordination.

Disney could only win a wrongful termination suit in two ways. The first would be to prove by way of bringing forth actual evidence that Mr. Sotomayor was a troublesome employee with a history of less than favorable reviews. They could also win their fight if they had documents signed by the employee agreeing to random searches of his private property, thereby relinquishing his Fourth Amendment rights.

In determining whether Mr. Sotomayor signed any such documentation when hired by Disney, I spoke with several employees who have worked at Disney for over 36 years, collectively. Neither of these employees were aware of any forms or documents requiring signature at the time of employment. They had also not heard of any employee having to sign any documents which gave Disney the right to search their employee’s vehicles. The best they could offer was signage posted in employee areas which advised that all employees had to cooperate with security searches. Oops! That means firing Edwin Sotomayor for not complying with an illegal search of his property (car) is not a valid reason to terminate employment and a big step toward winning his case.

Disney’s claim of exemption, which is flimsy at best, is predicated upon a false assumption and a very loose interpretation of an explosives license for firework displays at the park. The exemption (based on the storing of explosives and/or fuel) exists for companies whose primary function is in the sale, distribution or housing of those dangerous substances.

Last time I checked, Disney, specifically Walt Disney World Theme Parks, is in the business of entertainment. While they may store fuel for their fleet vehicles and some pyrotechnics for use in nightly displays and various shows, it is not the company’s main function. For them to declare this exemption is akin to Publix claiming the same exemption because they have fueling tanks for delivery trucks on premises in Lakeland.

It’s no secret that Disney has long been a voice against gun owners' rights. They’re also well known for their anti-hunting stance. Anyone who’s seen the movies Bambi, Brother Bear, The Fox & the Hound and other such films knows that Disney has a tendency to portray hunters as blood-thirsty killers with no respect for life or nature. Hunters and gun owners are often lumped in with criminals and shown in the same negative light. Apparently, legal gun owners in their employ are painted with the same brush. Disney is not the only theme park claiming exemption to the new law. Universal Studios has claimed exemption as well, stating that since they operate the Universal Education Center (UEC) on premises (staffed by Orange County Public School Employees) they are bound to observe the exemption as a public school would.

This is a somewhat more reasonable excuse. However, what remains to be seen is if the UEC qualifies under the interpretation of the statute. That is something for the courts to decide. As far as I am concerned, unless Universal can show that the UEC is a primary function of their business, they are very likely in jeopardy of falsely claiming the exemption for the entirety of their properties. It may be applicable to the school itself, but not to the entire theme park Busch Gardens and Sea World allow their employees to carry under the law. In a recent statement, spokeswoman Becca Bides said, “(The) company supports the rights of its employees or visitors to transport legal firearms in their cars, and we have for some time.”

There’s a couple of things I find absolutely remarkable about this story. First, and most obvious, is the fact that this appears to be a set-up from the start. The company appeared to be aware of his intent to lawfully carry his weapon in his car and seemed to be laying in wait for him to search his vehicle without probable cause is highly suspect.

Of course, Disney’s silence on the details of their internal investigation casts an even bigger shadow on the affair. We likely will never know the entire story. What is certain is that any employee’s vehicle is their private property.

Disney has the right to refuse service or admittance on the property at any time and for any reason, but to search an employee’s or guest’s vehicle is not permissible unless there is probable cause and it is conducted by state-recognized or authorized law enforcement. Disney’s security force is neither a licensed police force nor a recognized law enforcement body. They operate under the same statutes as private security guards and private investigators, subject to the oversight and control of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They have no jurisdiction or ability to conduct searches or impose fines. They can only detain persons until FHP or Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrive on scene.

What I also find uncanny about this story is that I happened to be at the park on the day this took place. And, by Disney’s standards, I should have been banned from the park and removed from the premises. In fact, I should never be allowed on Disney property because I never travel unarmed. Since the time I was old enough to legally posses a firearm without parental supervision, I have always kept a gun of some kind in my vehicle. Early on, it was a shotgun.

Eventually, (once I was old enough) it became a Ruger P90 .45 ACP. I never leave home without it. On this particular day, as it is every day, it was tucked neatly and securely between the cushion of my driver’s seat and the center console of my vehicle for quick and easy access.

In all the years I have carried my weapon, I have yet to unsheathe it in defense of a human life. But you never know when that day will come. And I take comfort in knowing it’s at the ready if ever the occasion should arise.

I know Disney touts itself as “The happiest place on earth.” But somehow, I don’t think criminals pay too much attention to company slogans. Oddly enough, Orlando’s Channel 9 News found a 43% increase in calls to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for assistance in the last year. Most of those calls went unreported, as the deputies do not file reports unless the incident rises to the level of a crime. What is certain is that crime in the area has gone up drastically. While most of the crime is not on Disney property, it is a factor that employees and visitors must contend with in their travels.

Mr. Sotomayor has hired an attorney and intends to take Disney to court over the issue. What will result is sure to be a landmark case, either in defense of or against the new statute. As a law-abiding citizen and gun owner, I’m glad to know there are guys out there like Edwin Sotomayor who are willing to sacrifice their jobs in pursuit of upholding our constitutional rights.

Sure, he stands to make a pretty good chunk of change if he wins (probably a far sight better than any income he could have made as a security guard), but the principle behind the fight is more important than the cash rewards he may reap if he is successful.

Before it’s all over, I’m sure the NRA will get involved. With their guidance and assistance, I hope that justice will prevail and law-abiding gun owners will have their rights upheld as guaranteed under the Constitution and the Second Amendment.

Politicians have long been afraid of the power wielded by Disney. It’s my opinion we should take some of that power back and buck them down a few notches. Disney needs to know they are no more above the law than any other business operating within our great state.

As legal gun owners and sportsmen, it’s time we banded together in defense of our rights and sent the message that we’re for freedom first. Call or write to Disney and let them know how you feel about their decision to discriminate against your Second Amendment rights. You can write to Disney Public Relations at Walt Disney World Resort, P.O. Box 10000 Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-1000 or by calling (407) 566-6397.