Cop Who Arrested Man for Legally Carrying Gun Gets Sued
If you’re out in public, minding your own business and breaking no law, you shouldn’t have to fear being arrested, handcuffed, and tossed into a squad car.
But if you are so treated, can you sue the officer for damages? That is the substance of an Ohio case recently decided by the Sixth Circuit, where a man had been arrested for legally carrying a gun. The court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiff is good news not just for gun owners, but all other Americans who might now be spared arrest, humiliation, or worse.
Here’s what happened. Shawn Northrup and his wife took their dog out for a walk one evening in June, 2010 in their city of residence, Toledo. He was wearing a visible gun holster with a pistol showing, which he knew was perfectly legal under Ohio law. Northrup also has a concealed carry permit, but that wasn’t the issue since it is legal to openly carry firearms in Ohio.
Alas, the Northrups’ peaceful walk was interrupted when a passing motorcycle rider noticed the holster, then stopped and yelled, “You can’t walk around with a gun like that!” Denise Northrup replied that he was mistaken and her husband was completely within his rights.
Acting in that great American tradition of busybodyism, the motorcyclist figured that this couple out walking their dog was so fraught with danger that he called 911 to report the emergency. Remarkably, the 911 dispatcher happened to know that openly carrying a weapon is legal – but nevertheless she notified the Toledo police about this dire situation.
Within a few minutes, Officer Dan Bright pulled up in his squad car and encountered the Northrups. In an astounding overreaction to a non-threatening situation, Bright told Shawn that he would shoot him if he went for his gun. Bright then disarmed him, handcuffed him, told him he was under arrest for “inducing a panic,” and put him in the back of his squad car.
It took half an hour for Shawn and his wife to convince Bright that he had a concealed carry permit for the gun and had not broken any law. In a face-saving move, Bright wrote him a citation for “failing to disclose personal information” and released him.
Northrup was not willing to just forget about his spoiled evening and filed suit against Bright and the Toledo police department in federal court for violating his rights under the U.S. Constitution and state law.
Bright and the police argue, however, that the suit is barred under the doctrine of qualified immunity. That judicially-created doctrine says that officials who act reasonably in the course of their duties cannot be held liable. It’s the same defense that was raised in the Berry case I wrote about last year, where Florida police and licensing officials conducted an outrageous raid on a barbershop. The 11th Circuit didn’t buy the qualified immunity defense in that case and the 6th has rejected it here.
He needn’t have done nothing, but could have easily ascertained how unthreatening the situation was if he had just spoken calmly to Northrup for a few moments. Instead, he overreacted and resorted to force when none was necessary.
The holding doesn’t mean that Northrup wins, but only that the case can proceed to trial without the qualified immunity defense.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s comments on the decision are right on the mark:
“The police are free to approach people to ask them questions, even without reasonable suspicion that the people are violating the law. They can order a person to stop for a short while if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is committing a crime or about to commit a crime. They can certainly disarm him and arrest him if they reasonably think that he’s about to shoot them…. But to coercively stop a person – and certain to handcuff the person – the police do have to have reasonable suspicion.”
Northrup is an important Fourth Amendment case because it helps to clarify the need for reasonable suspicion before police can employ force, but perhaps even more important will be the subsequent trial verdict if Bright is held liable. One of the great – no, make that the great – civil rights issue America faces today is that government officials (and not just the police) think they can get away with almost anything. Often, they do, even when the harm is far greater than in this case.
An appalling example I wrote about recently is Kane v. Lewis, where a man suspected of nothing more than marijuana use was killed in a 4 AM SWAT raid. The Fourth Circuit’s decision to overturn the jury’s $250,000 judgment against the police in a case where they had not only overreacted, but then lied about it will only encourage that “we can get away with it” mindset.
If we are to deter swaggering, overly aggressive police conduct, the prospect of civil liability is crucial. Evan Bernick of the Institute for Justice rightly says in this Freeman piece, “Judge Sutton’s decision provides a blueprint for ensuring that those who enforce the law are not beyond its reach.”
Let’s hope so. Officers need to know that qualified immunity won’t save them from paying when they do wrong, just like the rest of us.
Originally published on Forbes.com.