Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Gun And A Wallet Are Equally Protected From Search, Oconee County Chief Deputy Tells Class

HB 60 Not The Key

Carrying a gun legally is no different from carrying a wallet.

Because of this, police officers cannot search someone simply because they believe the person is carrying a gun.

And citizens do not have to surrender their constitutional rights against unreasonable search because they are armed.

Chief Deputy Weems 1/10/2015

These were some of the key components of a course, called “Interacting With Armed Citizens,” taught by Oconee County Chief Deputy Lee Weems on Jan. 10 in the Emergency Operations Center behind the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office on Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville.

The course was an offering of Proficient Strategies LLC, Weems’ private company, and open to the public.

Court Cases Determine Rights

The individual right against unreasonable search–and the constraints it places on peace officers-- evolves from court cases over the years, Weems told the 18 people who attended the class.

Georgia House Bill 60, passed by the Georgia General Assembly last year, only codified those rights, he said.

The provisions of that law and of a related law on gun rights passed by the Assembly formed a key part of the three-hour course.

Weems said that Sheriff Scott Berry gave him permission to use the county facilities for the course.

Weems said he has agreed to use the proceeds from the course to purchase targets and pay other expenses associated with the Sheriff Office’s use of a private shooting range in the south of county.

Who Attended

Weems, through his company, Proficient Strategies, advertised the course to the general public on the web through Eventbrite.

Some of those in attendance identified themselves as police officers, and a police officer from the University of North Georgia was in the audience.

A defense attorney interested in gun rights also attended.

I registered for and paid the $15 fee and $1.82 service charge for the course because I was interested in learning about the course and its content.

Weems said he made the course available to sheriff’s deputies, and several attended.

Understanding Seizure

“If a person or their stuff is not free to go, they are seized,” Weems told the group at the beginning of the session.

“In order to seize, you must have the legal authority to seize,” he said.

Court cases have established that the mere possession of a weapon or the appearance of possessing a weapon is not sufficient to provide police with the authority to search or seize a person, he explained.

HB 60 states what the court cases have established as law, he told the audience members.

Background On Course

Weems said the offering two Saturdays ago was only the second time he had taught the course to the general public.

He first taught the course in 2009, he said, and he taught it a dozen or more times in 2014 alone, mostly to police officers around the state and region.

He told me he plans to offer the course with a special focus on Oconee County citizens later this year.

Weems said he offered the course at the Sheriff’s Office only after he “ran it by” Sheriff Berry and Berry approved.

I sent Sheriff Berry an email message that afternoon asking him to confirm the arrangements as a courtesy, but Berry has not responded. Weems told me Sheriff Berry has been sick and out of the office this past week. I delayed this posting in the hopes of getting a reply from Sheriff Berry.

The arrangements for the course were very public, as was the actual use of the facility itself.

Sheriff’s Power

County Attorney Daniel Haygood had told me before the course that the Sheriff has considerable authority over and discretion in the use of the jail and all related properties.

“If the Sheriff reaches the conclusion that it is an important public service to have that class,” Haygood said, “he can use the county facilities to hold it.”

The use of public property by a private company would represent a gratuity as defined by state law, Haygood said, but the Sheriff has the right to allow even a private company to do that if he judges it to be appropriate.

Proficient Strategies LLC is incorporated in Georgia, according to the Secretary of State database, with Weems listed as the registered agent.

Weems uses 1140 Experiment Station Road–the address of the Sheriff’s Office–as the location where he can be legally served, but he uses a post office box for the official address of the company.

House Bill 60

“Just because a person is carrying a gun doesn’t mean you can stop them,” Weems told the group. “Understand, stop is a seizure. You cannot seize them to determine if they have a valid weapons carry permit.”

Weems said HB 60 does provide a new definition of what constitutes a government building.

It is illegal to carry a weapon into a building with a courtroom, he said, and “There must be security screening at every point of entry” to such a building.

Formerly Named Courthouse Annex

Any building in which a court is held is defined as a courthouse under the law, he said, and the Sheriff has responsibility for security at all such county buildings.

Because the buildings across the street from the Oconee County Courthouse in Watkinsville do not serve any court function, the county removed the name Courthouse Annex from the signs outside, removing the buildings from the responsibility of the Sheriff, according to Weems.

Conflicts With House Bill 826

Weems said HB 60 allows citizens with a Georgia Weapons Carry License to bring a weapon into a business, including a bar, but a property owner always has the legal right to ask a person to leave for any reason.

HB 60 and HB 826 have conflicting provisions about carrying weapons on school property, Weems said, and the current interpretation is that the more restrictive HB 60 is controlling, since Gov. Nathan Deal signed it after he signed HB 826.

Licensed gun owners do not have the right to carry their weapons onto school and college campuses as a result of that action, Weems said.

He also said he thought the issue might not be fully settled, pending court rulings.

Films Of Abuse

Weems used several videos during the course, including one shot at Town Center in Watkinsville and involving an Oconee County Deputy, who was carrying a visible weapon.

The event had been staged and recorded and was designed to show that officers need to be cautious in their assumptions as they respond to reports of citizens with weapons.

This message was brought home with two films from out of state shown at the climax of the class.

In one of those films, the citizen was both verbally and physically abused by the police officer. In the other, the officers made threatening statements but did not physically abuse the citizen.

In both cases, Weems said, the citizen was simply exercising the legal right to carry a weapon–a right that needs to be recognized by the police.

The two videos can be viewed on Weems’ blog site.

Second Course

Weems, through Proficient Strategies, was scheduled to offer a second course yesterday on use of a lever-action weapon. The course cost $75 plus $5.12 in fees.

A centerfire lever-action rifle with 80 rounds and a pistol with 50 rounds, as well as support gear, were required for completion of the course.

I have neither weapon nor the related gear and did not register.

Weems told me this week that the course was to be taught “on a private range in Oconee.”


Rich Clark said...

What an interesting blog post. I want to commend Lee Becker on how the piece gives the reader insight to an event many of us would not attend (yet be curious about), and Professor Becker leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the event. This is just great journalism.

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott, just avoid any and all appearance of a conflict of interest and have Weems hold all of his classes on private property. If he wants to offer a free class to the public, then county property is fine. The second he starts charging for it, well, it kind of smells.

Anonymous said...

It is good that Oconee citizens have an opportunity to learn more about their responisbilities related to firearms carry laws. Those of us who have a carry permit need to know the law as it relates to our resp. and resp. of law enforcement.