One afternoon in March 2014, someone called the Ranson, West Virginia, police to report seeing a man loading a handgun and putting it into his pocket as he got into a car parked in a convenience store lot known to have been the site of many illicit drug transactions.
Responding officers stopped a car traveling nearby that seemed to match the description provided by the caller after they noticed its occupants were not wearing seatbelts. As the driver was providing ID, the officers asked her passenger to get out of the car, frisked him and found a loaded gun. Recognizing the man as a former convict, the officers arrested Shaquille Robinson for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Robinson appealed his ensuing conviction, arguing that police violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. West Virginia is a “constitutional carry” state: law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry concealed weapons without a permit. For all the police knew, Robinson contended, he could have been carrying the gun legally.
But a federal appeals court found against him, ruling that “an officer who makes a lawful traffic stop and who has a reasonable suspicion that one of theautomobile's occupants is armed may frisk that individual for the officer's protection and the safety of everyone on the scene.”
Now Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has agreed to join the attorneys general of Michigan, Texas, Utah and West Virginia to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Robinson's conviction, contending it infringes on Second Amendment gun rights.
As usual, we wonder why Indiana's top attorney wants to get the state involved in these far-afield battles. Hill's predecessor, Greg Zoeller, was famous for helping to organize multistate “interventions.” Hill seems to share Zoeller's belief that the office exists not just to serve the state but to channel time and energy into national crusades of the attorney general's choosing.
This crusade is particularly dubious. At stake is less a gun right than the right of police officers to protect themselves during potentially hazardous moments such as traffic stops.
As the appeals panel noted in its decision, “The danger justifying a protective frisk arises from the combination of a forced police encounter and the presence of a weapon, not from any illegality of the weapon's possession.”
Two tragic incidents in Indiana are the latest reminders of why police must be constantly aware of the possibility of sudden and lethal gun violence. Last Wednesday, an orthopedic doctor was shot to death as he walked between buildings at a clinic in Mishawaka, by a man reportedly angry because the doctor wouldn't prescribe opioids for his wife. Thursday, a Southport police officer trying to assist the occupants of a car that had crashed and overturned was shot to death by one of the passengers. These were not places one would expect violence.
Police, most of all, cannot afford to forgo vigilance about the possibility of gun violence in potentially tense encounters. If the Supreme Court were to rule police can't check for weapons people they've legitimately stopped, the world would get just a little bit more dangerous. For some reason, our state attorney general's office has chosen to take sides in this West Virginia case – and the wrong side, at that.