Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police say that Keith Lamont Scott was holding a handgun – not a book – moments before he was shot and killed by an officer Tuesday afternoon.
But one expert questions whether CMPD was justified in its initial interaction with Scott, even based on the police’s own version of events.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, the city said that officers had come to the Village at College Downs apartment complex to serve an outstanding warrant.
As they entered the complex, the police noticed Keith Lamont Scott, who was not the person they were trying to serve the warrant.
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According to a statement by CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, the officers “observed a subject, Mr. Keith Lamont Scott, inside a vehicle in the apartment complex. The subject exited the vehicle armed with a handgun. Officers observed the subject get back into the vehicle at which time they began to approach the subject.”
Putney’s statement continued: “Officers gave loud and clear verbal commands, corroborated by witnesses, for the subject to drop the weapon.”
Gregory Wallace, a law professor at Campbell University in Raleigh, said the city’s statement raises questions as to why police ordered Scott to drop his gun.
In North Carolina, the open-carry of a handgun is legal. Concealed carry is also legal, so long as you have a permit.
He said the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that someone carrying a handgun does not give the police the ability to stop and search them or someone with them.
That case also involved CMPD, when officers in the Eastway division stopped a group of men hanging out at a gas station six years ago. One of the men told the officers he had a handgun in a holster, which was legal. Believing there would be other guns present, the officers searched the other men, and found one man – Nathaniel Black – illegally carrying a handgun as a felon.
His conviction was later overturned.
“The mere possession of a handgun does not give the police probable cause or reasonable suspicion to briefly detain you for stop and frisk,” Wallace said. “The mere fact that you have a handgun isn’t enough – it’s legal in N.C.”
Wallace said it’s possible the officers had reason to believe Scott was engaging in suspicious behavior. But Putney’s statement does not mention any factors other than his handgun.
A woman claiming she is Scott’s daughter said on a live-streamed video that Scott was unarmed, sitting in his car reading a book and waiting for the school bus to drop off his son.
Wallace said a police order that Scott drop his weapon would not be considered a consensual exchange, in which an officer asked a suspect why he was carrying a weapon or why he was sitting in the car.
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“Just based on them seeing the gun and nothing else, they don't have justification to detain him, for even briefly on whether he’s up to no good,” Wallace said.
According to the city, “In spite of these verbal commands, Mr. Scott exited the vehicle still armed with the handgun as officers continued to tell him to drop his weapon.”
“The subject posed an imminent deadly threat to the officers and Officer Brentley Vinson subsequently fired his weapon striking the subject. The officers immediately requested Medic and began performing CPR,” the city said.
The issue of gun rights and police shootings have been an issue before.
In Minnesota earlier this year, Philando Castile allegedly told a police officer during a traffic stop that he had a concealed handgun. Police say he reached for the weapon before he was shot and killed in his car.
After the shooting of five Dallas police officers, the city’s mayor and police chief said the state’s laws allowing open-carry of rifles and handgun made it harder for the police to find the sniper.
In North Carolina, the open-carry of handguns has been allowed for decades.
The N.C. General Assembly recently made state gun databases private and no longer available for public inspection. Scott was not on a concealed permit list or a Mecklenburg purchase permit list from 2013, though he could have had received a permit over the last three years.
Wallace said the police did not know whether Scott had a permit. He doesn’t think that would be reason to demand he drop his weapon.
More Charlotte police shooting coverage