A Hopewell man is arguing in federal court that his basic constitutional guarantees were violated when a Hopewell police sergeant had him arrested and detained last year as he peacefully carried an “Impeach Obama” sign on an Interstate 295 overpass while armed with a rifle and pistol.
Brandon Howard argues in a nine-page complaint filed Wednesday by a lawyer working with the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute that his “baseless incarceration” violated his rights to free speech, to due process, to freedom from illegal search and seizure, and to possess and openly carry a firearm.
Howard drew the attention of Hopewell police on Aug. 26, 2013, when he was seen displaying a 6-by-4-foot sign that read “Impeach Obama.” He had an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder on a strap and a .380-caliber Bersa pistol holstered on his waist.
The only defendant named in the complaint is former Hopewell Sgt. John Hunter. He has since retired from the police force, said Hopewell Deputy Police Chief Robert Skowron.
“The U.S. government has unfortunately adopted a ‘do what I say, not what I do’ mindset when it comes to Americans’ rights overall,” John W. Whitehead, president of the civil liberties group representing Howard, said in a statement. “Nowhere is this double standard more evident than in the government’s attempts to arm itself to the teeth, all the while viewing as suspect anyone who dares to legally own a gun, let alone use one.”
“As this case shows, while it still technically remains legal to own a firearm in America, possessing one can now get you pulled over, searched, arrested, subjected to all manner of surveillance, treated as a suspect without ever having committed a crime, shot at and killed,” Whitehead added.
According to the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Howard — who is chairman of the Hopewell Republican Committee and at the time was a member of a local tea party group — had been protesting lawfully for about 30 minutes when a police officer pulled up to the area on the overpass where Howard was standing and parked his vehicle. Three to five police cruisers arrived a short time later with their emergency lights flashing, the suit says.
Six to eight officers then got out of their cars with their guns drawn and commanded Howard to drop his sign and get on the ground with his hands spread above his head, the complaint says.
The suit says that after Howard immediately complied, Hunter, described as the scene commander, stated to Howard, “What do you think you are doing threatening people on my interstate?”Howard replied that he had not threatened anyone and was simply exercising his First Amendment and Second Amendment rights. To that, Hunter said, “Not on my overpass you’re not,” according to the suit.
The complaint says Hunter then handcuffed Howard, with Hunter advising Howard that he was being detained but not arrested when Howard asked if he was under arrest. Howard was placed in a police cruiser and taken to the Hopewell police station without anyone informing him of his legal rights or providing him “with any basis or authorization for his arrest and detention,” the suit says.
Howard was then placed in an interrogation room, with handcuffs still binding his hands behind his back, for more than 90 minutes but was never questioned during his detention, the suit says. He was then told he was free to go, his weapons were returned, and he was driven back to the interstate overpass.
“Both weapons were legally owned by Howard at that time, and at no point during his time on the overpass did Howard draw or brandish either weapon,” the complaint says.
After arriving back home, Howard says in the complaint, he noticed the muzzle of his AR-15 rifle had been damaged as a result of Hunter throwing it into the trunk of a police car. He filed a complaint with the department about his arrest and damage to his gun.
Howard says in his suit that upon completion of an internal police investigation, he received a letter from Deputy Chief Skowron dated Sept. 20, 2013, that Hunter was “in violation of department policy and would be disciplined.”
Contacted Thursday, Hopewell Police Chief John Keohane declined to comment on the lawsuit, aside from reiterating that an internal investigation was conducted and “we found there was a department policy violation and discipline did occur.”
The suit seeks “nominal compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.”