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Open Carry & Police Stops in Michigan: Context Matters

Aug 25 | 2014  by

Young men adorned in black garb with rifles slung across their backs walking by a hospital are sure to raise some eyebrows, especially in the suburbs – but it’s not necessarily illegal if you’re over 18 in Michigan. But is it a violation of your constitutional rights if the police temporarily stop and disarm you to ensure you are not unlawfully carrying?

District Court Judge Robert H. Cleland recently handled such a case out of Sterling Heights, MI, and his answer was a resounding, “No” – it is not a violation of constitutional rights for police to temporarily stop you if they have probable cause to believe you might be breaking the law.

Sterling Heights police had received at least six phone calls from concerned residents about individuals who looked like teenagers, dressed in all black with sunglasses, and who were also openly carrying rifles and handguns. Police stopped the individuals, peacefully disarmed them, and they confirmed they were indeed over 18 and lawfully carrying. The guns were returned, and police went on their way.

However, following the incident, the two men who were stopped sued Sterling Heights, its police department, and several officers. They alleged that the officers violated their First, Second, and Fourth Amendment rights.

Judge Cleland sided with the officers. The police officers have what is called “qualified immunity,” whereby government officials are shielded from civil liability when actions performed in their official capacity do not violate “clearly established” rights. And the right to bear arms, like many rights, is not absolute.

In this case, the police officers also had probable cause to believe that the individuals were violating the law – specifically a Michigan law which prohibits people under the age of 18 from openly carrying firearms in public without the supervision of an adult. Given their youthful appearance, and one call that referred to the young men as teenagers, the officers were justified in stopping and searching the individuals to confirm their age.

The individuals who were stopped also alleged their First Amendment rights were violated and that their open carrying of rifles constituted speech. They referenced this year’s Memorial Day Parade where members of a group called Michigan Open Carry marched while carrying guns. However, the Open Carry group had registered in the parade and given prior notice that they would be open carrying, while these two individuals were simply walking the streets in all-black, foreboding attire.

In the words of Judge Cleland, the two were clearly, “trolling for confrontation.” But the overall point is that context matters, especially in lieu of recent mass-shooting events in suburbs where the perpetrators were wearing similar outfits. On the other hand, had these individuals been walking on a street in the UP during hunting season, they may not have had any second looks.

It is important to note that Michigan law does prohibit the carrying of firearms in certain locations, and private establishments can also prohibit firearms. If you are over 18, then you can open carry in some public spaces. However, depending on the circumstances and context, you may be subject to a search from law enforcement.

In the (colorful) words of Judge Cleland’s opinion:

“…in the contemporary reality of a settled, peaceful suburban environment, where most of the hunting is done between aisle three and the frozen food section, the sight of commandos with AK-47s marching along the highway predictably grabs the attention of citizens and law enforcement alike.”

If you would like to learn more about this case, please visit Case Text. If you have questions about your rights, you can contact Mark Mandell with Fausone & Grysko, PLC at (248) 380-0000 or online at FB-Firm.com.