In June 2008, off-duty Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew St. John was searched and detained for carrying a holstered gun in a movie theater in Alamogordo, New Mexico. But open carry is legal in New Mexico, so St. John sued the city, arguing that it had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. A federal court agreed, and in September 2009 the City of Alamogordo paid him $21,000 in damages and legal fees.
The officers who detained St. John claimed they were acting in their legitimate role as "community caretakers" when they grabbed him by both arms and physically removed him from the theater. As the court explained, "Under the community caretaker exception, officers may seize an individual in order to 'ensure the safety of the public and/or the individual.'?" U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Black rejected the officers' claim, explaining that "they had no basis for believing that anyone's safety was at risk." Since the officers should have known that a citizen's legal possession of a weapon does not justify searching or detaining him, Black wrote, they could not claim qualified immunity for their actions.
The settlement is one of at least four recent cases in which overzealous police officers trying to enforce nonexistent laws against weapon possession were slapped down and made to pay for it. At least five more such cases are pending.