Police May Not Even Temporarily Detain a Person Simply Because He’s Openly Carrying a Handgun,

if such open carrying in that place is generally not a crime. So holds St. John v. McColley (D.N.M. Sept. 8, 2009), which grants summary judgment to the seized person on his Fourth Amendment claim:

Defendants lacked a justifiable suspicion that Mr. St. John had committed a crime, was committing a crime or was about to commit a crime. Indeed, Officer McColley conceded that he did not observe Mr. St. John committing any crimes and that he arrived at the theater with the suspicion that Mr. St. John was merely “showing a gun”, which is not illegal in the State of New Mexico. Nor was there any reason to believe that a crime was afoot. When they found him, Mr. St. John was peacefully sitting through the previews for his second movie of the day. Officers had no reason to believe that Mr. St. John had been, was, or would be involved in any criminal activity whatsoever. [Footnote: Defendants contend that Mr. St. John was about to commit a crime because, had he refused to comply with their request that he leave the premises, he would have been trespassing. If accepted, this argument would significantly erode Fourth Amendment protections. Because the Court finds no jurisprudential support for Defendants’ novel contention, no further discussion of it is necessary.] …

Moreover, Mr. St. John’s lawful possession of a loaded firearm in a crowded place could not, by itself, create a reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigatory detention. For example, in United States v. Ubiles, 224 F.3d 213 (3rd Cir. 2000), the Third Circuit found that an individual’s lawful possession of a firearm in a crowded place did not justify a search or seizure. In Ubiles, officers seized Ubiles during a crowded celebration after they received a tip that he was carrying a gun. Officers did so even though no applicable law prohibited Ubiles from carrying a firearm during the celebration. Holding that the search violated Ubiles’ Fourth Amendment rights, the court noted that the situation was no different than if the informant had told officers “that Ubiles possessed a wallet . . . and the authorities had stopped him for that reason.”

The Tenth Circuit has also dealt with this question. In United States v. King, 990 F.2d 1552 (10th Cir. 1993) the Tenth Circuit found that an investigatory detention initiated by an officer after he discovered that the defendant lawfully possessed a loaded firearm lacked sufficient basis because the firearm alone did not create a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity…. Though the King court ultimately found that King’s detention was non-investigatory and could, thus, be justified under the officer’s community caretaker function while he advised King of the hazardous conditions that his honking created, the King rationale does not apply here because Defendants had no legitimate reason to engage Mr. St. John in the first place.

More broadly, Defendants’ actions are not protected by the community caretaker exception because they had no basis for believing that anyone’s safety was at risk. Defendants simply received a report that an individual was carrying a firearm in a location where individuals could lawfully carry firearms. They received no indication that Mr. St. John was behaving suspiciously or in a threatening manner. When Defendants arrived, they found Mr. St. John sitting peaceably in the Theater preparing to watch a movie. They had no basis for believing that Mr. St. John’s use of the weapon was likely to become criminal, cause a public disturbance or pose a threat to safety. Nor did anyone seem particularly alarmed by Mr. St. John’s weapon. Indeed, the record does not reveal that anyone—including the lone customer who spoke to Officer McColley about Mr. St. John’s gun—was even concerned enough to have left the Theater as a result.

The case has since been settled, so there will be no appeal.

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