The city’s insurance carrier paid a man $5,000 last month to settle a lawsuit following a federal judge’s opinion that a Corvallis police officer unlawfully detained and searched the man two years ago as he was retrieving his mail — and openly carrying a gun.
Kevin Hall, who has since moved from Corvallis to Alpine, represented himself in the lawsuit, which he launched Oct. 9, 2012, two weeks shy of the one-year deadline to file.
The 31-year-old software developer and Monroe volunteer firefighter said he was walking the less than 200 feet to his house after retrieving his mail in the early afternoon on Oct. 26, 2011, when Corvallis Police Officer James Dodge pulled up, got out of his patrol car and approached him.
Hall, who wore a gun in a holster attached to his belt and a knife clipped in his front pocket, said he was prepared. He had memorized his legal rights concerning interactions with law enforcement and his rights to openly carry firearms. Normally, he also had with him an audio recorder and an iPod capable of video recording to ensure the honesty of law enforcement.
During the stop, which lasted only minutes, Officer Dodge questioned Hall, performed an exterior pat down to check for additional weapons and then checked with dispatch to see if Hall had warrants — using a name found on a piece of Hall’s mail. Hall then was allowed to go.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane issued an opinion in September that Dodge didn’t have the required reasonable suspicion to detain Hall.
Both sides agree, according to court documents, that when Hall noticed Dodge exit his patrol vehicle, he asked if he was being detained. The officer replied no, but said he’d like to speak to Hall. Hall ignored Dodge’s questions and asked again if he was being detained. That time, Dodge replied yes. Hall remained silent as Dodge patted him down and asked him questions such as where he lived and whether he had identification on him.
Court documents indicate that the officer was suspicious of Hall because he was openly carrying a gun in a high-crime area along the railroad tracks, wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt covering his head, behaving and moving suspiciously and refusing to answer his questions. Hall’s residence and mailbox were on a short section of Sixth Street, near D Avenue, which borders the railroad tracks. It is unpaved and dead-ends before it reaches C Avenue.
The officer said he had reasonable suspicion that Hall had been trespassing on railroad property.
Judge McShane disagreed.
“The gravity of the public concern — criminal trespass — was minimal,” he wrote, “as was the public concern — preventing criminal trespass and ‘transient-related crimes and violations’ — served by the seizure.”
Because it was an unlawful stop, McShane wrote, Dodge also didn’t have the right to pat down Hall. Both actions, according to McShane, violated Hall’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Began with a complaint
Before filing a lawsuit, Hall first filed a complaint with the Corvallis Police Department.
“We did conduct the investigation internally,” Police Chief Jon Sassaman said. “Of course, we sometimes end up with differing opinions based on everybody’s recollection. We didn’t find that the officer did anything wrong. Unfortunately, the federal judge disagreed.”
The city, police department and insurance carrier determined that a settlement would be the cheaper route, he said.
“As a city, we have to decide what the economic threshold is for which we would continue to challenge the ruling, even if we feel the ruling is inaccurate,” he said.
‘A rights thing, not a gun thing’
When Hall moved to Corvallis from Los Angeles in June 2011, he openly carried a gun wherever he was legally allowed — to prove a point, to exercise his rights and to open up dialogue.
“For me, it’s always been more of a rights thing, not a gun thing,” he said. “When I open carry, the reason I do it is to remind people of their rights.”
Hall has a concealed weapons permit and he participates in competition shooting. His dad, sister and brother-in-law are all in law enforcement, he said.
In the four months he lived in Corvallis prior to the incident, he had only one other encounter with police while openly carrying, and it was consensual, he said.
Mostly, he said, people just did a double-take when he walked around town with his Glock 22 visible in its holster — although one time he had a good talk with two perturbed ladies who questioned him at the library.
He stopped, for the most part, openly packing heat after he filed the lawsuit.
“I stopped because my personal belief is, if you open carry, you have to be willing to say no to police and sometimes that results in being arrested and being detained,” he said. “Since I had one lawsuit going on, I didn’t want another one.”
‘We get caught in the middle’
The Corvallis Police Department recognizes the rights of citizens to legally carry firearms, Sassaman said, but the situation gets sticky when members of the community who are uncomfortable with it call the police.
“A lot of times we find that people are trying to draw law enforcement in and then later say that we were violating their rights,” he said. “When citizens are calling 911, we have to somehow evaluate what that situation is. Is it truly someone who is legally carrying a firearm or is it someone who committed a crime or is about to commit a crime? We get caught in the middle of that.”
Sassaman recalled a specific “gun rights activist” from a few years ago.
“We had a guy carrying an AR-15 downtown, which is a military-style weapon. It made people nervous,” he said.
After Hall filed a complaint — and before he launched the lawsuit — the agency conducted a refresher course on related laws and policies.
“We, as a department, recognized this as one of those volatile issues, and we were experiencing other open-carry activists in town at that time,” he said. “We said, let’s review the Second Amendment, the open carry laws, the concealed carry laws and all the other weapon statutes for Oregon.”