Delaware County was hit with a federal lawsuit yesterday claiming that its policy of refusing to return confiscated firearms unless the owners obtain a court order is unconstitutional.

The civil-rights suit was filed by C. Scott Shields, a gun-rights attorney and small-town political firebrand who has been the National Rifle Association's point man in fighting Philadelphia's attempt to write its own gun laws.

The plaintiff, Thomas DeOrio, 21, of Glen Mills, argues that the county government, judges and Sheriff's Department illegally retain confiscated guns - even if a crime hasn't been committed - when the owner is entitled to retrieve them.

In DeOrio's case, Brookhaven police seized his collection of handguns and rifles in October and turned them over to the sheriff when his girlfriend filed for a temporary protection-from-abuse order. Shields said she perceived something he had said to be threatening. Three days later, after a court hearing, a judge dismissed the order, records show.

But DeOrio soon learned that getting his guns back wouldn't be as easy.

Although the protection-from-abuse order had been thrown out, Shields said the sheriff's office refused to return the firearms unless DeOrio filed a "legal action."

"Hence, we have a civil-rights suit," said Shields, the mayor of Rutledge Borough.

Shields said the county's policy lacks a provision for the return of firearms when a protection-from-abuse order expires or is dismissed, and instead gives "unfettered discretion" to judges.

"This has been going on for years in Delaware County," he said. "Some of these people believe that firearms are inherently dangerous and you should not have them."

County Solicitor John P. McBlain said he would review the policy to "make sure we're doing the right thing," but otherwise declined to comment because the matter is in litigation.

The case mirrors a lawsuit Shields filed last year against the Upper Darby Police Department when it blocked a woman from retrieving her late father's guns. She was his sole beneficiary.

A federal judge ruled in August that a portion of the department's policy is unconstitutional because it gives police Superintendent Michael Chitwood Sr. the final say, in some instances, in determining if a person may retrieve confiscated guns.

Robert DiDomenicis, an attorney for Upper Darby, said the township likely would resolve that case without a trial by modifying its policy.

The township also agreed to give the firearms to the woman who filed the suit.