Video footage was released from a Delaware man’s Ring Doorbell showing two ATF agents and one Delaware State Police trooper questioning a homeowner about recent firearms purchases. The footage, accompanied by an article at Ammoland.com, explained that the homeowner, in hindsight, felt that his privacy has been invaded and that he felt coerced into cooperation with the officers. The officers explained that they were part of a task force investigating potential straw purchases, which occur when someone buys a firearm on behalf of another person, who is otherwise unable to purchase directly. They had records in-hand, showing the homeowner’s recent purchases, and they said they wanted to verify that the man still had the firearms. Here’s the footage:
It’s clear that the officers had no warrant. But what did they need, if anything, as far as criminal suspicion goes?
The Delaware State Trooper, who by the way, is part of an organization that has close to zero respect for the 2nd Amendment, and which has already been caught maintaining secret lists of gun owners, had this to say about the reason they were there:
“The reason we’re out here is obviously gun violence is at an uptick. We want to make sure – we’ve been having a lot of issues with straw purchases. One of the things, indicators we get is someone making a large gun purchase, and then a lot of times we’ve been there and ‘Oh, those guns got taken.’”
One of the ATF agents had this to say about why they were there:
“It just came up. We came here, look, I’m telling you. There’s an email from the federal side saying can you make sure this guy’s got his guns. If you recently purchased a whole bunch of guns, if we can look at them and just scratch them off…”
Therefore, it appears to be the case that there is no particularized information pertaining to this homeowner, indicating that he may have committed some crime – or even that a crime had been committed in the first place. Basically, he purchased multiple firearms and theoretically, anyone who purchases multiple firearms could potentially have purchased them as straw-conveyances for third parties. Since this is not particularized to the homeowner, it could not form the basis of either reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
However, since the man is in his home, neither reasonable suspicion, nor probable cause, is all that relevant. The officers have two options. They can obtain a search warrant, which would require a finding of probable cause, approved by a judge, in advance, in which case there would need to be particularized facts about the homeowner. Or, they can do what cops call a “knock and talk,” which is what appears to have happened here.
The legal theory is this: so-called consensual encounters don’t implicate the Fourth Amendment in the first place. Basically it’s a conversation with the consent of an individual. There’s no detainment. Cops are free to talk to someone willing to talk with them, just like anyone can. Because doing so doesn’t trigger Fourth Amendment protections, no reasonable suspicion is required, much less probable cause. That’s what the officers were attempting to do here. They clearly had no reasonable suspicion, assuming they weren’t lying (which is an entirely different legal issue).
The homeowner felt coerced. So here’s the legal issue: Would a reasonable, regular person believe that he was not free to terminate the encounter? A person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment “only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” (Terry v. Ohio 1968).
Such a seizure can be said to occur when, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that “a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” Or, in the context of a location the citizen doesn’t want to leave, such as their front porch, the appropriate question is whether that person would feel free to “terminate the encounter.” (Florida v. Bostick 1991).
There could be a number of relevant factors that could determine these questions, such as the number of officers present, their appearance, their actions, as well as their demeanor, such as whether they were non-threatening, and whether they acted as though they suspected the individual of illegal activity, rather than treating the encounter as “routine” in nature.
Here, there were multiple officers. They appeared to make an express attempt to act like they were non-threatening in demeanor and engaged in a routine investigation. But on the other hand, there were three of them, positioned in what some could argue as a threatening manner: spaced out in front of the house, as if they were dealing with a known criminal, as opposed to a law abiding citizen in a nice neighborhood. There was some tactical gear on display and they were obviously armed. Of course, we’d know for sure had the homeowner actually attempted to terminate the encounter.