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Reason online: Court Victory Against Police Immunity in an Open-Carry Case


Brian Doherty | September 16, 2009, 12:53pm

Details on a nice court victory for citizen rights against police immunity from a federal court in New Mexico, from the Liberty for All blog. The case was:

St. John v Alamogordo Public Safety, U. S. District Court of New Mexico, No. 08-994 BB/LAM.

Mr. St. John went into a movie theater openly carrying a holstered handgun. New Mexico has no law forbidding the open carry of a handgun.

The theater owner called Alamogordo Public Safety. Four law enforcement officers (LEO) approached Mr. St. John and with force removed him from the theater, took his handgun and patted him down. After checking, found out that the handgun was legal and that he was not a criminal, returned his handgun and let him go back to the movie but without his handgun, which he placed in his vehicle.

Mr. St. John filed suit in state court but the case was moved to a federal court because Mr. St. John alleged that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated and also asserts his rights under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act.

The undisputed fact is that Mr. St. John seizure was unreasonable. He had not committed a crime, was not committing a crime and was not about to commit a crime.

The court stated that “the firearm alone did not create a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity”. The court went on to state that the “Defendants (LEO) had no legitimate reason to engage Mr. St. John in the first place”, also the “Defendants (LEO) had no reason for seizing Mr. St. John”, “Mr. St. John had done nothing to arouse suspicion”.

The judge did rule that the Defendants (LEO) did violate Mr. St. John’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Lastly and the best part of this case was that the judge stated that the “Defendants (LEO) motion for summary judgment is denied with regard to qualified immunity”.

In short, the LEOs can be sued....This ruling means that the law enforcement officers will have to think about what they are doing and begin to make sound judgment and not act on impulse. They will have to take responsibility for their action and/ or maybe face a lawsuit....

The Wisconsin Gun Rights Examiner has more thoughts and interesting details on this decision:

I thought this decision was interesting because this court goes even further to address the “community caretaker function” of the police and that it may be invoked as a defense only so long as the officer is entitled to make a forcible stop. Merely receiving a call from a hypersensitive person that someone is armed where it is lawful to be armed, is not reason enough to believe anyone’s safety is in danger in the absence of any suspicious or threatening behavior. This seems to me to be the big disconnect with law enforcement training. The 911 operators need to ask more questions of the caller to determine if there is any criminal activity before sending out one or more officers. In this case, Mr. St. John was in a theater watching a preview to a movie, a perfectly legal activity. The responding officers should have been trained to discern the difference between unlawful activity and a person quietly watching a movie.

The court also found that merely being armed does not automatically make a person armed and dangerous, which would be necessary to justify a limited protective search (Terry stop) that justify officers disarming an individual.

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