So we just received the Court’s ruling in the Walker v. Putnam County open carry AR-15 case, pending in federal court in Huntington, West Virginia, and as suspected would happen, the Court granted summary judgment for the defendants, which dismisses lawsuit, subject to our right to appeal to the Fourth Circuit. We absolutely are going to appeal.
Perhaps the most important part of the ruling, in my mind, was this:
In determining whether reasonable suspicion existed, the Court is mindful of the Fourth Circuit’s instruction that “where a state permits individuals to openly carry firearms, the exercise of this right, without more, cannot justify an investigatory detention.” Black, 707 F.3d at 540.
What qualifies as something “more” is a developing area of law as courts face the expansion of open carry, which can arouse suspicion in combination with other innocent facts. See U.S. v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 277–78 (2002) (holding that factors “susceptible of innocent explanation” may “form a particularized and objective basis” for reasonable suspicion when considered together).
The parties here only dispute whether the uncontested facts of the encounter constitute the something “more” required for reasonable suspicion to stop Walker as he openly carried his semi- automatic rifle. After considering the issue, the Court concludes reasonable suspicion existed.
Here, in my opinion, this logic is sort of like saying, “You’re not allowed to stop people open carrying a firearm in an open-carry state in order to investigate whether they are legally allowed to possess a firearm, but . . . I’m going to allow it because police officers should be allowed to do so under certain circumstances, for the following reasons . . . .” Whereas, US v. Black provided for no exception to its bright-line rule protecting people open-carrying firearms, now exceptions are being sought for AR-15 style rifles, as well as for the proximity to a school, or a school shooting.
Of course, “innocent facts” can, combined with “more,” equal reasonable suspicion to stop an individual open-carrying a firearm in an open-carry state. But what has been ignored here, is that the only suspected crime was either 1) Michael openly carrying an AR-15, which is not a crime in West Virginia; or 2) being a prohibited person from possessing a firearm, which falls squarely within the holding of U.S. v. Black: you cannot stop and ID an open-carrier in an open carry state (without reasonable suspicion of some other crime). In other words, the mere presence of the firearm cannot be the suspected crime.
The other flawed premise of this opinion is that, even though Deputy Donahoe clearly only suspected Michael Walker of being a prohibited person (which violates Black) as illustrated by the video, and even though Donahoe showed no indication of suspicion of Michael being a school shooter at the time of the encounter, that because the standard is a subjective one, we can ignore everything Donahoe actually said/did, and focus on far-flung theories cooked up by lawyers after-the-fact.
This is the supposed reasonable suspicion justifying the stop: 1) the type of weapon Michael possessed; 2) the encounter’s proximity to a school; and 3) the encounter’s proximity to the Parkland School Shooting. None of these facts, other than the rifle being an AR-15 style rifle, are present in the underlying facts of the case. More troubling, even if they were present in the facts of this actual encounter, we still have the same constitutional dilemma: none of the allegations are illegal. AR-15 style rifles are perfectly legal. Michael’s location, i.e., proximity to the nearest school, was completely legal; and possessing a firearm in proximity to a school shooting 900 or so miles away is certainly not illegal. Moreover, none of these facts are individualized to the encounter.
The objective standard cannot be used to mean, can we think up some hypothetical justification for a stop, after-the-fact, in order to justify the stop? No, we can’t. The objective facts must be analyzed using the actual facts present, which is evidenced by the subjective testimony of those involved. Just because Donahoe is wrong about everything, doesn’t mean that we can throw out his testimony, and the video, and use non-individualized general data, such as weapon types and school proximities to justify searches and seizures.
In any event, as I suspected, the language I quoted above is where we’re heading. When we take this up on appeal, will the Fourth Circuit castrate U.S. v. Black so that any police officer can stop, ID, background check, and Terry Search, anyone openly carrying firearms in open carry states? After all, any good prosecutor or civil defense lawyer could think up some legal theory, based on proximity to some sensitive location: school, courthouse, post office, government building, whatever.
Once you have “reasonable suspicion,” police can then perform a Terry Search, period. There’s no uncoupling Terry Searches from investigatory detentions. An officer can choose to just run an ID and not do a Terry Search. But he will be justified under the law in doing both, should he choose to do so. The old slippery slope of civil rights. It never goes up – only down.
The opinion also included some of the false information on AR-15 style rifles, which I had been hoping to avoid:
Here, Walker’s possession of an AR-15-style rifle under these circumstances was unusual and alarming. Whereas possessing an AR-15 at a shooting range or on one’s own property would not raise an eyebrow, there was no obvious reason for the rifle’s possession here.
Unlike a holstered handgun, like that at issue in U.S. v. Black, AR-15s are not commonly carried for self-defense. 707 F.3d at 535. Nor are they traditionally used for hunting. Seeing Walker at 6:00 p.m. in February in an urban area would further diminish an inference that Walker possessed the rifle for hunting because the sun would soon set and hunting after dark is generally prohibited.
The rifle being uncased, ready to fire at a moment’s notice, and Walker’s camouflage pants also contributed to an unusual presentation of the firearm. See Embody, 695 F.3d at 581 (finding an openly carrying man’s military-style camouflage clothing contributed to reasonable suspicion); Deffert, 111 F. Supp. 3d at 809, 810 (holding the same).
The sight was unusual and startling enough to prompt a concerned citizen to dial 9-1-1 and for Donahoe, based on his practical experience, to investigate Walker’s destination. See Deffert, 111 F. Supp. 3d at 809 (holding an officer responding to a 9-1- 1 call about a man carrying a firearm, as opposed to randomly stopping the man, supports finding reasonable suspicion); Smiscik, 49 F. Supp. 3d at 499 (holding the same).
Together, these facts would form a particularized and objective basis for an investigatory stop.
I had attempted to rebut some of this, as it came up during oral arguments on the motion. But post-argument briefing was not allowed. There was no evidence about AR-15s in general involved in the underlying case, whatsoever, except the after-the-fact testimony by the deputy that he was allegedly afraid of scary black rifles, even though he said nothing about it at the time, according to the video.
AR-15 style rifles are today the most popular firearm in America, and are widely used by people hunting. Coyote hunting takes place at dusk and at night. The video clearly shows Michael’s rifle slung over his shoulder, with muzzle pointed down. Even Deputy Donahoe admitted that Michael was safely carrying the rifle, with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, and that he even had a backpack on top of the rifle. And then there’s the fact that the Second Amendment has absolutely nothing to do with hunting…. But unfortunately, the SCOTUS hasn’t recognized a Second Amendment right outside of one’s home, as of yet.
The ruling which came down today:
The video, in case you missed it: