Detention of Man with AR-15 Walking Toward School Was Lawful

Walker v. Donahoe, 2021 WL 2816291 (4th Cir. 2021)

I have 11 grandkids. A few of them walk through pleasant neighborhoods to good schools, staffed by great teachers (I’m biased, I think pretty much anyone wanting to teach children is just great). Not long ago, my nine-year-old grandson watched as Unified Police Officers chased down a running suspect with a gun near his school. Putnam County Sheriff’s Department deputies Brian Donahoe and Brandon Pauley are the kind of cops we hope are hanging around the elementary and middle schools where our kids and grandkids learn.

A few days after a mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and 17 more were wounded, Michael Walker of Scott Depot, West Virginia was walking toward a school with kindergarten and elementary students. He was dressed in military-style clothing, carrying a backpack and had an AR-15-style rifle on a sling. Not surprisingly, a caller reported Walker to the Sheriff.

Deputies Donahoe and Pauley approached Walker. The deputies suspected Walker was under 18 because of his youthful appearance and the fact that he was not driving. West Virginia law bars juveniles from carrying a deadly weapon, except on private property or for purposes of hunting. Walker later claimed he was walking to a hunting location and could not drive due to epileptic seizures. Walker was actually 24 years old and had a misdemeanor criminal record.

The court noted that, given the recent murders at the Parkland school, “any reasonable officer be on heightened alert for copycat crimes,” and that the deputies were responding to a call from a concerned citizen.

As the deputies approached Walker, he began to video record the encounter with his cell phone. Walker initially refused to identify himself or answer several of the deputies’ questions, challenging the deputies’ authority to stop and detain him. Walker refused to discuss his purpose for carrying the so-called assault rifle. He told the deputies he had “done nothing wrong” and was simply “walking up the road.” Walker asked several times why he was being stopped, whether he had broken any law or was suspected of a crime, and whether he was free to go or was being detained.

Within nine minutes of stopping Walker, the deputies told him he was free to leave. Walker sued the deputies, alleging an illegal detention. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the deputies. The court ruled the deputies had reasonable suspicion to stop and detain Walker and that the scope and length of the stop were reasonable. The court ruled “Walker’s youthful appearance” and the fact that he was walking rather than driving, provided a reasonable basis for the deputies to suspect Walker was a juvenile. Walker acknowledged to the court he was often asked for identification when buying cigarettes.

The court also noted that, given the recent murders at the Parkland school, “any reasonable officer be on heightened alert for copycat crimes,” and that the deputies were responding to a call from a concerned citizen. The court further noted Walker’s military-style clothing and his travel path near to and approaching the Teays Valley Christian School. Considering Walker’s youthful appearance, the court observed that the deputies could have reasonably concluded Walker was of school age.

The court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the deputies, observing that the 911 call and the totality of the circumstances provided reasonable suspicion to stop and question Walker. The deputies testified they were very mindful of the recent mass shooting with the same type of weapon. The court held “it is proper to consider the type of firearm that Walker was carrying — an AR-15-style assault rifle. As Corporal Donahoe emphasizes, such rifles have been ‘the weapon of choice for the deadliest mass shooters of the past decade.’”

For more than two decades, I’ve written in the thousands of pages of Xiphos, “talk nice, think mean.” For this case, I add: Don’t back away from doing your job properly and effectively. No matter what Deputies Donahoe and Pauley thought when they approached an uncooperative man with a gun, near a school, dressed in combat clothes, just a week after a mass murder in a school, they properly articulated a valid and constitutional purpose for stopping and detaining Walker. Hundreds of parents probably don’t know enough about what happened that day to thank the deputies. But we do.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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