To hear them tell it, the officers who apprehended 39-year-old David Pyles on March 8 thwarted a mass murder. The cops “were able to successfully take a potentially volatile male subject into protective custody for a mental evaluation,” the Medford, Oregon, police department announced in a press release. The subject had been placed on administrative leave from his job not long before, was “very disgruntled,” and had recently purchased several firearms. “Local Law Enforcement agencies were extremely concerned that the subject was planning retaliation against his employers,” the press release said. Fortunately, Pyles “voluntarily” turned himself over to police custody, and his legally purchased firearms “were seized for safekeeping.”
This supposedly voluntary exchange involved two SWAT teams, officers from Medford and nearby Roseburg, sheriff’s deputies from Jackson and Douglas counties, and the Oregon State Police. Pyles hadn’t committed any crime; nor was he suspected of having committed one. The police never obtained a warrant for either search or arrest. They never consulted with a judge or a mental health professional before sending military-style tactical teams to take Pyles in.
“They woke me up with a phone call at about 5:50 in the morning,” Pyles says. “I looked out the window and saw the SWAT team pointing their guns at my house. The officer on the phone told me to turn myself in. I told them I would, on three conditions. I would not be handcuffed. I would not be taken off my property. And I would not be forced to get a mental health evaluation. He agreed. The second I stepped outside, they jumped me. Then they handcuffed me, took me off my property, and took me to get a mental health evaluation.”
By noon, Pyles had already been released from the Rogue Valley Medical Center with a clean bill of mental health. Four days later the Medford Police Department returned Pyles’ guns, despite telling him earlier in the week—falsely—that he would need to undergo a second background check before he could get them back. The Medford Police Department then put out a second press release, this time announcing that it had returned the “disgruntled” worker’s guns and “now considers this matter closed.”
There’s nothing wrong with looking for signs that someone is about to snap. If he is waving multiple red flags, we’d certainly want law enforcement to investigate. And obviously if someone has made specific threats, a criminal investigation should follow. But that’s a far cry from what happened to Pyles.
Pyles’ problems followed a series of grievances with his employer, the Oregon Department of Transportation. “It was never personal,” he says. “We were handling the grievances through the process stipulated in the union contract.” (Pyles declined to discuss the nature of the complaints, citing conditions in his contract.) On March 4 he was placed on administrative leave, which required him to work from home. On March 5, 6, and 7, after getting his income tax refund, he made three purchases of five firearms. Pyles describes himself as a gun enthusiast who already owned several weapons.
All three purchases required an Oregon background check, which would have prohibited the transactions had Pyles ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving violence or been committed by the state to a mental health institution. Pyles says he has no criminal record, and he says he never threatened anyone in his office. (Later reports confirmed that Pyles never made any threat of violence.) The Oregon State Police, the Medford Police Department, and the Oregon Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.
“In my opinion, the apprehension of David Pyles was a violation of Oregon’s kidnapping laws,” says James Leuenberger, a criminal defense attorney who is advising Pyles. “He definitely deserves to be compensated for what they did to him, but even if he wins a civil rights suit, that will just result in the officers’ employers paying for their mistakes.” That means the final tab will be paid by Oregon taxpayers, not the offending cops. “I want these law enforcement officials held personally responsible,” Leuenberger says. “I want them criminally charged.”
It’s hard to see that happening. Joseph Bloom, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University and an expert on civil commitment law, says the police who apprehended and detained Pyles likely were acting within the state’s laws. Bloom says the police are permitted to decide on their own to take someone in for an evaluation, and that there’s no requirement that they first consult with a judge or a mental health professional.
Bloom believes this is a wise policy. “It’s important to remember that this is a civil process,” he says. “There’s no arrest. These people aren’t being taken to jail. It’s not a criminal action.”
SWAT teams, guns, and handcuffs …but not a criminal action? And what if Pyles had refused to “voluntarily” surrender to the police? “Well, yes,” Bloom says. “I guess then it would become a criminal matter.”
If what happened to Pyles is legal in Oregon or elsewhere, we need to take a second look at the civil commitment power. Even setting aside the SWAT overkill in Medford, there’s something discomfiting about granting the government the power to yank someone from his home based only on a series of actions that were perfectly lawful.
Even if the apprehension of Pyles was legal, the seizure of his guns was not. Civil commitment laws do not authorize the police to search a private residence. According to Pyles, he closed the door behind him as he left his home. Because the police didn’t have a search warrant, they had no right to enter Pyles’ home, much less take weapons that he bought and possessed legally.
“For me,” says Pyles, “this is about civil rights. This seems like something the NRA and the ACLU can agree on. South Oregon is big gun country. If something like this can happen here, where just about everyone owns a gun, it can happen anywhere.”
Radley Balko (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor at Reason.