On February 21, 2018, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office Deputy B.E. Donahoe responded to a complaint relayed from the emergency dispatch center that someone had reported that there was an individual walking down the side of a public road while in possession of a firearm. The individual was the plaintiff, Michael Walker, who being a victim of epileptic seizures, does not have a driver’s license. He was headed coyote hunting, and had a rifle strapped over his back, along with a backpack. Deputy Donahoe brutally insulted Mr. Walker, who was being polite, but insisting that he had committed no crime, and therefore should not be stopped and forced to hand over his ID. Donahoe repeatedly called him a “c_cksucker” while forcibly detaining him and running a criminal background check on him and questioning him as to why he would need an AR-15. The incident was fully captured on video by Mr. Walker.
At the time Deputy Donahoe responded to the scene, he possessed no prior knowledge of Mr. Walker. All he knew about Mr. Walker is what he observed when he arrived at the scene, which was observing him walking down the side of the road. He didn’t recall who had called 911, or specifically what the complainant had stated, other than that there was a guy walking down the side of the road with a firearm. Upon arriving at the scene, he observed Mr. Walker walking down the side of the road with a rifle “strapped across his back,” with the muzzle of the gun pointed towards the sky.
Upon arriving at the scene, Mr. Donahoe did not observe Walker committing any criminal activity. Nor was he informed by any other source that any crime had been committed by any individual. Walker was just walking. Donahoe had no indication that Mr. Walker was a person prohibited from possessing a firearm. Donahoe testified that he did not observe Mr. Walker doing anything unsafe with the rifle strapped on his back; nor did he observe the rifle in Mr. Walker’s hands; nor did he observe Mr. Walker acting threatening in any way. His only reason for stopping Mr. Walker was to find out if he was a prohibited person.
As portrayed by video footage taken by Mr. Walker with his phone, the interaction was not consensual. Donahoe gave Mr. Walker “no choice” in the matter. He told him during the stop that he was not free to leave until he was done with his investigation. Donahoe explained that the only investigation he was undertaking at the time, to which Mr. Walker was forced to submit, was to run Mr. Walker’s criminal history report, in order to determine whether he “was a person that could possess a firearm.” Admittedly, he had no information indicating that Mr. Walker may have been a prohibited person.
The case is over. We lost. Compare the video footage of the encounter with the legal aftermath, from the trial court level, through appeal to the Fourth Circuit, oral arguments, and ending with a deeply flawed published Fourth Circuit opinion. This case demonstrates what I refer to as a Bermuda Triangle of civil rights law….
Here we are following the hearing at the U.S. District Court in Huntington, West Virginia.
The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment for the officer, dismissing the lawsuit filed by Michael Walker. The order essentially created a carve-out for AR-15 style rifles from the usual reasonable suspicion analysis:
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.
Here is the full District Court Order that was appealed to the Fourth Circuit:
This was our opening brief to the Fourth Circuit:
Listen to oral arguments from this case at the Fourth Circuit:
Here’s me actually arguing to the Fourth Circuit panel, via my computer, in the bizarro world that was 2021 America:
Here’s the Fourth Circuit Opinion that ensued:
Here is our petition for rehearing en banc, which was denied: