The Fourth Amendment and open carry of guns (where such open carry is legal)

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From the Sixth Circuit federal court of appeals decision today in Northrup v. Toledo Police Dept.:

On a midsummer evening, Shawn and Denise Northrup went for a neighborhood walk with their daughter, grandson, and dog. Apparently in a happy-go-lucky mood, Shawn wore a t-shirt reading, "This Is The Shirt I Wear When I Don't Care." Shawn carried a cell phone, which he holstered on his hip—next to a black semiautomatic handgun.

A passing motorcyclist stopped to complain about Shawn's visible firearm. The stranger, Alan Rose, yelled, "[Y]ou can't walk around with a gun like that!" But "[O]pen carry is legal in Ohio!" Denise responded. As the Northrups walked away, Denise and Rose exchanged increasingly unprintable words until he was out of view (and earshot).

Rose called 911, reporting that "a guy walking down the street" with his dog was "carrying a gun out in the open."

The police eventually arrived, ordered Northrup to stop, demanded that he turn over the gun, handcuffed him, and kept him handcuffed in a police car for 30 minutes. Eventually, they let him go, and all charges were dropped. Northrup sued, and the Sixth Circuit allowed the case to go forward:

While open-carry laws may put police officers (and some motorcyclists) in awkward situations from time to time, the Ohio legislature has decided its citizens may be entrusted with firearms on public streets. Ohio Rev. Code §§ 9.68, 2923.125. The Toledo Police Department has no authority to disregard this decision—not to mention the protections of the Fourth Amendment—by detaining every "gunman" who lawfully possesses a firearm. And it has long been clearly established that an officer needs evidence of criminality or dangerousness before he may detain and disarm a law-abiding citizen. We thus affirm the district court's conclusion that, after reading the factual inferences in the record in Northrup's favor, Officer Bright could not reasonably suspect that Northrup needed to be disarmed.

The police had also initially suggested that Northrup was guilty of the Ohio crime of "causing panic," but the court pointed out this wasn't so (at least under Northrup's version of the facts). Indeed, the Ohio "causing panic" statute provides,

No person shall cause the evacuation of any public place, or otherwise cause serious public inconvenience or alarm, by doing any of the following:

(1) Initiating or circulating a report or warning of an alleged or impending fire, explosion, crime, or other catastrophe, knowing that such report or warning is false;

(2) Threatening to commit any offense of violence;

(3) Committing any offense, with reckless disregard of the likelihood that its commission will cause serious public inconvenience or alarm.

None of these was present here, and even if one thinks that open carry—though allowed by Ohio law—is likely to "cause serious public inconvenience or alarm," that is not enough under the statute: The police also have to have evidence that the person filed a false report, threatened to commit an offense, or committed some other offense.

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, or if he is otherwise threatening them (something that the police alleged here, but that the court said is a fact question for the jury).

But to coercively stop a person—and certainly to handcuff the person, which is what happened in this case—the police do have to have such reasonable suspicion. And if all they see is someone openly carrying a gun in a state in which such open carry is legal, the Fourth Amendment prevents them from "search[ing]" or "seiz[ing]" that person. One can support open carry or oppose it (some states ban open carry of guns but broadly offer licenses to carry concealed), but if open carry is legal, this result seems quite right under Fourth Amendment law.

Thanks to David Hardy for the pointer.