Officer Meltdown During Open Carry I.D. Refusal in WV | What Happened in Court

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 firearmSee 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:

SCOTUS Issues Landmark Second Amendment Opinion in NYSRPA v. Bruen

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right to carry firearms in public. Ultimately, the Court held that: “New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.” The ruling specifically challenged the law in New York, but will also apply to the eight other states that still maintain “may-issue” gun permitting laws, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

In 2008, the Supreme Court recognized the right to bear arms as an individual right in District of Columbia v. Heller. Two years after Heller, in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court ruled that this right applied against the states, and not just Congress.

The Bruen litigation challenged concealed-carry restrictions under N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(2)(f) that requires a showing of “proper cause” for the issuance of a carry permit. Lower courts upheld the New York law, but there were ample constitutional concerns over its vague standard, such as showing that you are “of good moral character.” New York wanted to exercise discretion in deciding who needs to carry guns in public, while gun owners rightfully argued that the law flips the constitutional presumption onto gun owners, rather than the government.

The 6-3 majority opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Chief Justice Roberts, rejected the “two-step” approach often employed by lower courts since the McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, saying that the Constitution “demands a test rooted in the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by history.”

The Court expressly held that “when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct.” Quoting the McDonald plurality opinion, the Court held that: “The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.” 

The Court said that: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.” 

Prior to today, the SCOTUS had only established a right to have a handgun in one’s home under the Second Amendment. Now, as was hoped for, and widely expected, the Court has now recognized that the right to “bear” arms includes the right to do so outside the home. States such as New York obviously still have numerous gun laws in place which restrict and affect this right. Going forward, Justice Thomas’s opinion means that courts should uphold gun restrictions only if there is a tradition of such regulation in U.S. history.

Thomas correctly notes that in 1791, there was no broad prohibition on the public carry of firearms, with their exclusion only being limited to certain “sensitive places.” Some of the more low-information politicians and commentators out there today argue that only muskets were available in 1791, and that therefore we should now be limited to muskets. Setting aside the obvious flaws in their logic, which would likewise render the First Amendment inapplicable to modern forms of communication and technology, the story of America is interwoven with the invention, use, and perfection of, the American Longrifle. Which by its very definition is not a musket, and which was used respectively in war, acts of self defense, as well as for other uses such as recreation and hunting. One could also point out that cannons were indeed available in 1791, including ships full of them, lawfully available for private ownership and operation.

In response to the opinion, New York Governor Kathy Hochul expressed that she believed the opinion to be “absolutely shocking that they have taken away our right to have reasonable restrictions.” We can see where this is headed in blue states such as New York. What happens when state and local governments refuse to enforce federal constitutional law, such as the Bruen decision? The remedy available to citizens is to sue under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (i.e., a federal civil rights lawsuit).

But no so fast, since this is where qualified immunity comes in. There’s usually a lag period in between a change in the law and the time in which the federal courts will hold governmental officials (police officers) liable under Section 1983 for civil rights violations. The excuse is generally that police officers can’t be expected to know of every change in the law as it occurs and should be given what is essentially a grace period. Will that happen here if lawsuits are necessary (which I guarantee they will be), and if so, how long will that grace period last? We shall see…. It doesn’t help that federal law enforcement is already announcing their “respectful” disagreement with the opinion.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release today:

“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s conclusion that the Second Amendment forbids New York’s reasonable requirement that individuals seeking to carry a concealed handgun must show that they need to do so for self-defense. The Department of Justice remains committed to saving innocent lives by enforcing and defending federal firearms laws, partnering with state, local and tribal authorities and using all legally available tools to tackle the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities.”

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-statement-supreme-court-ruling-new-york-state-rifle-pistol-association-inc

Wait, how does separation of powers work? Also, which Article or Amendment to the Constitution creates and governs the DOJ? I suppose the Framers should have provided an option for an agency of the executive branch to “respectfully disagree” with a “conclusion” of the Supreme Court.

Qualified immunity will not be a defense to cities and county governments who adopt policies and practices that violate federal constitutional rights, now including the Second Amendment as defined by Bruen. This is because political subdivisions cannot assert qualified immunity, as per the U.S. Supreme Court, who created qualified immunity out of thin air in the first place. State governments, on the other hand, have no need to assert federal qualified immunity, because they cannot be sued for money damages in federal courts.

Here is the full opinion in NYSRPA v. Bruen:

11th Circuit: Officer Granted Qualified Immunity After Shooting Innocent Homeowner at Wrong Address

In June of 2016 in Henry County, Georgia. Police sergeant Patrick Snook arrived at the wrong house and shot and killed the innocent homeowner, William David Powell, standing in his driveway. Sharon Powell, his wife, fled a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force against the officer. The Northern District of GA ultimately granted Summary Judgment in favor of the officer, granting him qualified immunity from standing trial in the civil case. She appealed to the 11th Circuit, which issued a published opinion on February 8. Here’s the full opinion, which you should read. Below I will post my takeaways and the basic law on police shootings.

An officer may use deadly force when he:

(1) “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others” or “that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm;” 

(2) reasonably believes that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent es- cape; and 

(3) has given some warning about the possible use of deadly force, if feasible. 

Quoting Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11-12 (1985).

This case focused on “Garner Factor” number 3. Is an officer required, as a bright line rule, to issue a warning prior to firing at a homeowner who appears with a gun? The Court held no. Only if “feasible.”

On the subject of warnings, we “have declined to fashion an inflexible rule that, in order to avoid civil liability, an officer must always warn his suspect before firing — particularly where such a warning might easily have cost the officer his life.” Penley, 605 F.3d at 854 n.6 (cleaned up); see also Carr v. Tatangelo, 338 F.3d 1259, 1269 n.19 (11th Cir. 2003). And the Supreme Court has instructed us that a plaintiff “cannot establish a Fourth Amendment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided.” City & Cnty. of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765, 1777 (2015) (quotation marks omitted)…..

While it’s clear that in some circumstances an officer must warn before using deadly force where it’s feasible to do so, Garner, 471 U.S. at 11–12, decisions addressing how soon an officer is required to give a warning to an unarmed suspect do not clearly establish anything about whether or when a warning is required for armed suspects raising a firearm in the direction of an officer. See Garner, 471 U.S. at 4, 21 (unarmed teen burglary suspect); Perez, 809 F.3d at 1217 (unarmed man lying on his stomach); Lundgren, 814 F.2d at 603 n.1 (store owner who did not threaten the officer with a weapon). There is no obviously clear, any-reasonable-officer-would-know rule that when faced with the threat of deadly force, an officer must give an armed suspect a warning at the earliest possible moment. See White, 137 S. Ct. at 552 (concluding, where late-arriving officer shot armed suspect without giving a warning, it was not an obvious case under Garner’s general principles). Instead, what’s clearly established is that it “is reasonable, and therefore constitutionally permissible, for an officer to use deadly force when he has probable cause to believe that his own life is in peril.” Tillis v. Brown, 12 F.4th 1291, 1298 (11th Cir. 2021) (quotation marks omitted). 

https://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201913340.pdf

But see, Betton v. Belue, 942 F.3d 184 (4th Cir. 2019), from the Fourth Circuit, which was almost identical factually, but came out the other way. The difference? There was a factual dispute regarding whether the homeowner pointed the gun at the officer. That small detail probably made the difference, as the Court had to assume that the homeowner did not point the gun.

If Officer Belue or another officer had identified themselves as members of law enforcement, Officer Belue reasonably may have believed that Betton’s presence while holding a firearm posed a deadly threat to the officers. Cooper , 735 F.3d at 159 ; Elliott , 99 F.3d at 644. And had Betton disobeyed a command given by the officers, such as to drop his weapon or to “come out” with his hands raised, Officer Belue reasonably may have feared for his safety upon observing Betton holding a gun at his side. See, e.g. , Sigman v. Town of Chapel Hill , 161 F.3d 782 (4th Cir. 1998) (officer was justified in using deadly force after suspect failed to obey command to stop advancing toward officer while carrying a knife). However, under our precedent, Officer Belue’s failure to employ any of these protective measures rendered his use of force unreasonable.

Federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Mercer County Deputies for excessive force during “domestic disturbance” call

Today we filed a federal Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit alleging multiple counts of civil rights violations related to allegations of excessive force which occurred during a “domestic disturbance” call involving my client, Melvin Sargent. Following a non-violent argument with his wife, deputies from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department arrived at his home.

Due to the fact that he was open-carrying a pistol in a retention holster, as he usually did, and as he was legally entitled to do, Mr. Sargent went out of his way to raise his hands in the air and allow the officers to disarm him, following their arrival. However, as the complaint alleges, after being disarmed, he was punched in the face with a closed fist, and subjected to violence from there. His hand was boot-stomped, which resulted in a fractured hand.

After handcuffs were applied behind his back and placed in the rear of the police cruiser, his hand began to swell and cause severe pain. When he complained about the pain, the deputy violently pushed him and began punching him again. He then sprays pepper spray in his eyes for 3 to 5 seconds, and then shuts him inside the police cruiser. Afterwards the deputy walks over to Mr. Sargent’s significant other, who was filming video, where you can see his black armored knuckle gloves, covered with my client’s blood.

Here’s the filed complaint:

Rittenhouse Trial Closing Arguments Post-Trial Analysis

Closing arguments today in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Post-trial legal analysis, Live at 7pm ET. Also, the firearms possession count – count 6 – was dismissed by the judge prior to closing arguments beginning. The evidence is closed and attorneys for each side gets to make their arguments to the jury. Here’s my take…. Join me Live at 7:00 p.m. ET. Freedom is Scary – Ep. 83.

Kyle Rittenhouse Trial Day 8 Analysis

Some armchair legal quarterbacking following day 8 of the Kyle Rittenhouse self defense trial in Wisconsin. This is an important firearms related self defense case which illustrates the importance of attorney skill and tactics in jury trial advocacy. There’s been some surprising events so far in the trial, including the testimony of the defendant himself today. In fact, something shocking happened during Kyle’s cross examination which may itself be a constitutional violation. Join me to watch some of it and discuss…… Freedom is Scary Episode 80:

Petition for Rehearing En Banc Filed in the Walker Case

Here’s the Petition for Rehearing and Petition for Rehearing En Banc we filed yesterday in the Walker AR-15 open carry case, which will give effectively stay the case while the other judges on the Fourth Circuit have an opportunity to review our petition and consider whether to get involved.

If the Panel Opinion remains, Black is meaningless, because there will always be “more” available to any police officer. Even if an individual has violated no law, they will be subject to detainment based on any speculative crime which generally could be committed by any anonymous person. A man walking in the direction of any woman might be a rapist, given that he would appear to have the physical ability to carry out a rape. Any driver of a car heading in the direction of any other human being might be a potential murderer, because they appear to have the physical ability to run-over people, should they so choose. The analogies could go on and on because, like the Michael Walker case, these scenarios are all generalized, rather than based on individualized reasonable suspicion. 

Deputy Donahoe did, and claims to have done numerous other times, exactly that which Black forbade: to assume that being a felon in possession of a firearm was the default status; that, without more, he could detain and ID anyone he saw with a firearm. He admitted that he had no information that Walker may have been a prohibited person. (J.A. 162:5-8). Donahoe admitted under oath that had no indications that Mr. Walker was a threat to anyone, nor appeared to have any ill intentions (J.A. 167:1-4). Donahoe told Mr. Walker at the beginning of the stop, “At this point, I have the absolute right to see whether you’re legal to carry that gun or not.” (See J.A. 209 – Video of Incident). 

The District Court acknowledged 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 (J.A. 326). There was no “more.” Walker had committed no crime. He wasn’t observed committing a crime. Not a single person alleged that a crime was committed by Michael Walker. To allow a police officer’s subjective fear of AR-15s, or of theoretical copycat crimes, to be utilized as “more,” effectively swallows the rule. This opens the door to racial profiling, and so on. To allow the Panel Opinion to stand is to unravel Black, and important civil rights protections.

The 4th Circuit Holds that 18-20 year-olds have Second Amendment Rights

On the heels of the Fourth Circuit’s awful anti-gun opinion in the Walker case, comes an opinion today which holds that 18-20 year olds have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment. Federal law prohibits the sale of handguns and handgun ammunition to 18-20 year olds by licensed dealers. In an opinion written by Judge Richardson (appointed by Trump), the Court held that “Eighteen- to twenty-year-olds have Second Amendment rights, and the challenged laws impermissibly burden those rights.”

There are many things that minors and even those under 21 cannot do. See Ent. Merchs. Ass’n, 564 U.S. at 836–37 (Thomas, J., dissenting) (explaining that minors cannot drive for hire or drive a school bus, buy tobacco, play bingo for money, or execute a will). But none of those restrictions implicate constitutional rights, so states have great leeway to regulate those activities under their general police powers. And while the Court has “recognized that the State has somewhat broader authority to regulate the activities of children than of adults,” that does not mean that children necessarily have different rights than adults. Danforth, 428 U.S. at 74. Often they have the same rights as adults, but the states’ interests are stronger with regard to minors so restrictions may more easily pass constitutional scrutiny. Ent. Merchs. Ass’n, 564 U.S. at 794–95. So it is hard to conclude that 18- to 20-year-olds have no Second Amendment rights when almost every other constitutional right affords them protection. This conclusion becomes inescapable when we consider the history.

This is the Fourth Circuit, so WV, VA, MD, NC and SC. The government could still petition for rehearing en banc, as well as petition for certiorari to the US Supreme Court. So it’s not over yet….

Fourth Circuit Issues Anti-AR15 Diatribe in the Walker Case

Congratulations to West Virginia’s first Second Amendment “Sanctuary,” Putnam County, in obtaining a new anti-gun diatribe of a published opinion from the Fourth Circuit. This morning, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the Walker case. Basically, the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to the AR-15, and it matters not that the WV legislature allows its citizens to possess and use AR-15s, because the judiciary decides what peasants may possess – not the state legislature.

I knew it was going to be bad, since at the oral arguments one of the judges likened the AR-15 to the M-16. And he ended up authoring the opinion. You can listen to the oral arguments here, if you missed them.

Join me live at 7pm for a discussion on the ruling:

Putnam County W. Va. Search Video Update No. 2

Here’s a quick update video I did for Youtube on the Dustin Elswick case – the case where the drug task force was caught on video searching his house by hidden cameras.