To hear them tell it, the five police agencies who apprehended 39-year-old Oregonian David Pyles early on the morning of March 8 thwarted another lone wolf mass murderer. The police "were able to successfully take a potentially volatile male subject into protective custody for a mental evaluation," announced a press release put out by the Medford, Oregon, police department. The subject had recently been placed on administrative leave from his job, was "very disgruntled," and had recently purchased several firearms. "Local Law Enforcement agencies were extremely concerned that the subject was planning retaliation against his employers," the release said. Fortunately, Pyles "voluntarily" turned himself over to police custody, and the legally purchased firearms "were seized for safekeeping."
This voluntary exchange involved two SWAT teams, police officers from Medford and nearby Roseburg, sheriff's deputies from Jackson and Douglas counties, and the Oregon State Police. Oregon State Police Sgt. Jeff Proulx explained to South Oregon's Mail Tribune why the operation was such a success: "Instead of being reactive, we took a proactive approach."
There's just one problem: David Pyles hadn't committed any crime, nor was he suspected of having committed one. The police never obtained a warrant for either search or arrest. They never consulted with a judge or mental health professional before sending out the military-style tactical teams to take Pyle in.
"They woke me up with a phone call at about 5:50 in the morning," Pyles told me in a phone interview Friday. "I looked out the window and saw the SWAT team pointing their guns at my house. The officer on the phone told me to turn myself in. I told them I would, on three conditions: I would not be handcuffed. I would not be taken off my property. And I would not be forced to get a mental health evaluation. He agreed. The second I stepped outside, they jumped me. Then they handcuffed me, took me off my property, and took me to get a mental health evaluation."
By noon the same day, Pyles had already been released from the Rogue Valley Medical Center with a clean bill of mental health. Four days later the Medford Police Department returned Pyle's guns, despite telling him earlier in the week—falsely—that he'd need to undergo a second background check before he could get them back. On Friday the Medford Police Department put out a second press release, this time announcing that the agency had returned the "disgruntled" worker's guns, and "now considers this matter closed.
That seems unlikely. Pyles' case has spurred outrage in the gun rights community. Kevin Starrett of the Oregon Firearms Federation has been advising Pyles, and helped get his guns back. Oregon-based syndicated conservative talk radio host Lars Larson has taken up the story. And Pyles is now attorney shopping for a possible civil rights lawsuit.
At root behind this case and others like it is our naïve, hopeful, and sometimes even dangerous belief that every horrible shooting spree or lone-wolf act of terrorism can be prevented. We seem unable to accept the idea that bad people will occasionally do bad things. Every new mass shooting spurs an urge to assign blame beyond the shooter: What political ideology inspired him? Who missed the "warning signs," and why wasn't he apprehended ahead of time? Gun retailers are scrutinized and vilified, even when they've complied with the law. In ensuing days and weeks, politicians mull new laws, often both ineffective and constricting on our liberty.
There's nothing wrong with looking for signs that someone is about to snap, and if he's putting up multiple red flags, we'd certainly want law enforcement to investigate, possibly to chat with the person and his friends and family. And obviously if someone has made specific threats, a criminal investigation should follow. But that's a far cry from what happened to Pyles.
Pyles' problems began last June after a series of grievances with his employer, the Oregon Department of Transportation. "This was always a professional thing for me," he says. "It was never personal. We were handling the grievances through the process stipulated in the union contract." Pyles declined to discuss the nature of the complaints, citing stipulations in his contract.
On March 4, Pyles was placed on administrative leave, which required him to work from home. On March 5, 6, and 7, after getting his income tax refund, he made three purchases of five firearms. Pyles describes himself as a gun enthusiast, who had already owned several weapons. All three new purchases required an Oregon background check, which would have prohibited the transactions had Pyles ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving violence, or been committed by the state to a mental health institution. Pyles says he has no criminal record, and says he never threatened anyone in his office. (A specific threat of violence would have likely brought a criminal charge.) The Oregon State Police, the Medford Police Department, and the Oregon Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.
"In my opinion, the apprehension of David Pyles was a violation of Oregon's kidnapping laws," says James Leuenberger, a criminal defense attorney who is also advising Pyles. "He definitely deserves to be compensated for what they did to him, but even if he wins a civil rights suit, that will just result in the officers' employers paying for their mistakes." That of course means the final tab will be paid by Oregon's taxpayers, not the offending cops. "I want these law enforcement officials held personally responsible," Leuenberger says. "I want them criminally charged."
It's hard to see that happening. Joseph Bloom, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University and a specialist in civil commitment law, says the police who apprehended and detained Pyles were likely acting under the cover of Oregon law. Bloom says the police are permitted to make a determination on their own to take someone in for a mental health evaluation—there's no requirement that they first consult with a judge or mental health professional. Bloom believes this is a wise policy. "It's important to remember that this is a civil process," he says. "There's no arrest, these people aren't being taking to jail. It's not a criminal action."
So SWAT teams, guns, and handcuffs…but not a criminal action? And what if Pyles had refused to "voluntarily" surrender to the police? "Well, yes," Bloom says. "I guess then it would become a criminal matter."
If what happened to Pyles is legal, in Oregon or elsewhere, we need to take a second look at the civil commitment power. Even setting aside the SWAT team overkill in Medford, there's something awfully discomfiting about granting government authorities the power to yank someone from their home and drag them in for a mental health evaluation based on a series of actions that were perfectly legal, especially with no prior oversight from a judge, or guidance from a psychiatrist.
"The idea that Pyles turned himself in voluntarily is ridiculous," says Starrett, the gun rights activist. "There's nothing voluntary about waking up to a SWAT team outside your home, then having a police negotiator call and suggest you surrender. They had no arrest warrant. But Pyles only had one option. If he didn't come out on his own, they were going to come in to get him."
Even if the apprehension of Pyles was legal, the seizure of his guns wasn't. Because civil commitment laws aren't criminal in nature, they don't carry authorization for the police to search a private residence. According to Pyles, he closed the door behind him as he left his home. Because the police didn't have a search warrant, they had no right to even enter Pyles' home, much less seize guns inside that he bought and possessed legally.
For a potential mass murderer, Pyles is remarkably placid and big-picture about what happened to him. "I've been looking for a new job for months," he says. "But given the economy, I'm pretty lucky to be getting a paycheck, even given all of this. For me, this is about civil rights. This seems like something the NRA and the ACLU can agree on. South Oregon is big gun country. If something like this can happen here, where just about everyone owns a gun, it can happen anywhere."
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.