By: Margaret A. Lourdes, Esq. 2012

Body armor has existed since the beginning of warfare. It has evolved from clumsy, medieval suits of armor to modern, bullet proofs vests that can weigh as little as a few pounds.

Since the 1980s body armor, such as bullet proof vests, are credited with saving the lives of roughly 3,000 law enforcement officers in the United States. It can protect against gun shots and knife attacks. It also can protect officers from contaminated needle sticks when dealing with drug related crimes and arrests. Today, nearly 60% of the nation’s police departments require officers to wear some form of body armor.

Many private citizens who are not part of law enforcement may also wish to own body armor. Bullet proof vests are treated under the same legal regulations as concealed weapons, pepper sprays and stun guns.

Most states prohibit people from purchasing, possessing or owning body armor if they have felony records. The standard exception is if body armor is needed to ensure a person’s safety at work. In Michigan, a person with a felony record must petition the chief of police in his/her municipality for written permission to own body armor. Permission may be restricted within the chief’s discretion. The permission also must be carried with the recipient when he purchases or wears body armor. Violations of this law can result in up to four years in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Connecticut law has an additional twist. It not only forbids people convicted of certain felonies from having body armor, but it also requires any sale of body armor to be in person. This face-to-face sales requirement restricts internet sales.  Exceptions are made for government purchasers such as law enforcement and military personnel. Illegal sales of body armor in Connecticut can result in a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Federal law also prohibits violent, convicted felons from buying, owning, or possessing body armor. The federal law has the same work safety exceptions as the majority of state laws. Federal law applies to all states. Therefore, if you live in a state with its own body armor laws you could be charged twice under state and federal law if you illegally possess it.

Some states also apply additional penalties if a person wears body during the commission of a crime. In New Jersey, a person can be charged separately for wearing a bullet proof vest while carrying out criminal acts. The practical effect is more jail time and fines. Separate penalties have a wide range depending on the seriousness of the underlying crime. People wearing body armor in New Jersey during crimes, such as kidnapping, may face up to twenty years in jail in addition to kidnapping penalties.

Most law abiding citizens can purchase body armor legally. However, it is wise to check with your local police department to be certain no law prohibits internet purchases or restricts you from having body armor based on a criminal record. Body armor laws may not be as sweeping as those covering concealed weapons. However, it is still important to know applicable regulations if you intend to own it.