The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fearing her husband, she gave his guns to police. They jailed her for theft.


It had been a day since Courtney Taylor Irby’s husband had been arrested and accused of running her off the road, and now she was testifying that she feared for her safety.

Speaking at his June 15 bond hearing by telephone, Irby — who goes by her middle name Taylor — told a judge in Polk County, Fla., that she believed her estranged husband, 35-year-old Joseph Irby, was dangerous. The two had been separated since December, and she had filed for divorce in January, the same month the court granted her a temporary restraining order.

Now he was facing a domestic violence charge, over which Taylor Irby had been granted another temporary restraining order.

The judge released Joseph Irby on $10,000 bail — with the pretrial condition that he not use, possess or carry any weapons or ammunition.

Taylor Irby would later tell police that this is when she decided to take matters into her own hands, because she was afraid.

While Joseph Irby was still in police custody, she drove to his apartment, walked inside and collected the guns she knew he had, according to police records obtained by the Lakeland Ledger. Then the 32-year-old turned the weapons over to police.

In return, police arrested her.

How domestic violence leads to murder

Joseph Irby was released from police custody later that day, after 24 hours at the Polk County jail.

Taylor Irby was booked on two charges of grand theft of a firearm and one charge of armed burglary — “armed” not because she brought her own gun with her to the apartment, but because she was in possession of his guns on her way out. She spent six days and five nights in jail before she was released late last week. More than two dozen supporters crowded the courtroom for her bail hearing Thursday, including family, friends, her pastor and other church members, LkldNow reported.

“She has a good support system of friends and such,” Taylor Irby’s attorney, Lawrence Shearer, told The Post on Monday. “But obviously she is distressed on several levels.”

Now, the Hillsborough County, Fla., state attorney, a Parkland parent, the founder of Moms Demand Action, personal injury lawyer John Morgan, and Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) are speaking in support of Taylor Irby and calling on Polk County State Attorney Brian Haas not to pursue the charges against her.

Eskamani, who was elected last year and has worked for Planned Parenthood, said she was “completely angry and outraged” when she learned of Taylor Irby’s case.

“She was literally asking for help,” Eskamani told The Washington Post. “We know with so many survivors of domestic violence that asking for help is the biggest challenge. We just demonstrated that if you ask for help, you might be arrested.”

Why is American masculinity at the center of gun culture, but not the gun debate?

Monday morning, Eskamani sent a letter to Haas formally asking him to decline to prosecute Taylor Irby.

The letter called on Haas to file a “no information notice” and “set a tone that survivors will be empowered — not incarcerated or fined — for seeking support from law enforcement to escape abuse.”

The lawmaker cited research from the gun safety organization Everytown that found that women are five times more likely to be killed in domestic violence situations where guns are present.

Eskamani said she has been in communication with Taylor Irby’s friends and hopes to set up a meeting with the woman soon. Taylor Irby is known in the community as the owner of a small fashion accessories business and an occasional contributor to the Lakelander magazine.

Shearer said that he and his client are waiting to hear from Haas’s office. It usually takes the state attorney’s office a month to build a case against someone charged with a crime, then present their findings at a formal arraignment. Taylor Irby’s hearing is scheduled for July 16.

Shearer has argued in court documents that what Taylor Irby did was not theft or burglary. According to Florida law, theft is defined as depriving another person a right to property or benefit from property, which Shearer said Taylor Irby did not do, since legally Joseph Irby was not supposed to have the weapons. Additionally, Shearer argued, she did not “appropriate the property to her own use” because she gave the weapons to police.

“I have faith that our state attorney’s office will make the right charging decision,” Shearer told The Post.

Robert Peddy, Joseph Irby’s lawyer, did not return a request for comment, but earlier spoke with Fox 13. The TV station summarized his remarks this way:

“Meanwhile, Joseph Irby’s attorney, Robert Peddy, says [Taylor Irby] had no right to break into the apartment, and they’re concerned she’s dramatized the claims. Peddy said his client works hard, is a good, calm family man, and that real facts will eventually come out.”

Taylor Irby has not spoken publicly about her case, but her sister, Haley Burke, talked to several local news outlets.

“My sister was hysterical,” Burke wrote in an email to LkldNow. “She knew that this just poked the bear, and he would be coming after her. In the (hopes) of protecting herself and her children, she did the one thing that she thought would help save her life. She went to his apartment, gathered his arsenal of firearms and Kevlar and took them to the police station. She just knew that if the police had the guns, she would be safe for just a little while longer."

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia defended his department, telling TV station WFLA Channel 8 that “when a case is brought to us, we have to look at all sides of the cases and come to the fairest conclusion we can for everyone involved.”

On Twitter, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren called Taylor Irby’s arrest a “disgrace” and said that his county’s law enforcement officers will “always stand with survivors — not arrest them.”

John Morgan, a widely known personal injury attorney, said in a tweet that his law firm would represent Taylor Irby free.

In 35 states, local laws do not prevent those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or those subject to restraining orders from buying or owning guns, Eskamani wrote in her letter to Haas. Federal law makes it illegal for a person convicted of a violent crime to purchase firearms, she said, but those laws do not grant local law enforcement the authority to remove weapons that a person owned before conviction.

In the last legislative session, Eskamani co-sponsored a bill with state Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) that would have closed loopholes in federal law that keep guns in the hands of abusers.

The proposal, SB1206/HB941, would have required, among other things, that people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses surrender all firearms and ammunition. The bill never received a hearing, but Eskamani said she plans to introduce it again in the next legislative session.

“We have to prioritize cases of domestic violence, knowing that if we don’t, people could die,” she said.

How to protect women from domestic violence — before it’s too late

Eskamani noted, though, that there are legal mechanisms in place in Florida to keep people safe from potential gun violence. In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, the state adopted a red-flag law, which allows a judge or law enforcement to remove weapons from anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Under the guidelines of that law, police could have seized Joseph Irby’s weapons before Taylor Irby decided to intervene.

Court documents outline the days leading up to Joseph Irby and Taylor Irby’s arrests. On June 14, the two were involved in a “verbal altercation” after a courthouse hearing for their pending divorce, according to Joseph Irby’s arrest affidavit. Taylor Irby tried to leave the courthouse in her vehicle, and her estranged husband followed her, allegedly ramming his vehicle into her back bumper. He began “screaming and yelling at her,” according to the affidavit, and ran Taylor Irby off the road several times.

Taylor Irby called Bartow police and was “uncontrollable crying,” according to the affidavit. She said she feared for her life and had filed for restraining orders against Irby in the past. She drove to the police station, where officers observed damage to her rear bumper.

While at the police station, Taylor Irby received a photo from Joseph Irby indicating he was at the day camp where she was to pick up one of their two children. Police escorted her to the camp and arrested Joseph Irby on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He told police the scratches on his bumper were old, though the reporting officer wrote that she observed paint transfer that matched Taylor Irby’s vehicle.

According to the affidavit, Joseph Irby swore at the arresting officer and called her a “man hater."

A judge granted Taylor Irby a temporary injunction.

U.N. finds the deadliest place for women is their home

The next morning, she testified by telephone during his bail hearing, then carried out her plan to take away his weapons. When Taylor Irby took the guns to the Lakeland Police Department about noon on June 15, the officer on duty wrote in a report that he replied: “So, are you telling me that you committed an armed burglary?”

According to the arrest affidavit, Taylor Irby responded: “Yes, I am, but he wasn’t going to turn them in, so I am doing it."

Taylor Irby told the officers she feared for her safety with the guns in Joseph Irby’s possession.

The on-duty officer then made contact with Joseph Irby, who was incarcerated at the Polk County jail. Joseph Irby said that he had not given his wife permission to enter his apartment or take his weapons and that he wished to press charges against her, according to court documents.

Joseph Irby later applied for a temporary restraining order against Taylor Irby but was denied pending a hearing on June 28. In mid-July, both Irbys are due in court for arraignments in their criminal cases.

Read more:

He argued that his luck won the $80 million jackpot. A court ruled he had to split it with his ex.

Geronimo and the Japanese were imprisoned there. Now Fort Sill will hold migrant children again, sparking protests.

Scientists captured a historic video of a giant squid. Watch it emerge from the darkness.