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Armed Protester Says Police Violated Rights

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A man arrested as he displayed an "Impeach Obama" sign on the side of Virginia highway while carrying an assault rifle and an automatic pistol sued police for allegedly violating his constitutional rights.

In a complaint filed in the federal court in Richmond, Brandon Howard says he was completely within his rights on the late afternoon of Monday, August 26, 2013, when he stopped at the River Road highway overpass overlooking the northbound lanes of Interstate-295 near Hopewell, Va.

After arriving at the location, Howard says he displayed a 6-foot by 4-foot sign displaying the "Impeach Obama" slogan. Howard also says that while holding the sign, he had a DMTS Panther Arms assault rifle slung over his shoulder, and a .380 caliber Bersa Thunder sidearm pistol in a holster on his waist.

"Both weapons were lawfully 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 about a half hour, an officer pulled up to the scene, but remained inside his vehicle. Minutes later, several police cruisers arrived with their emergency lights flashing.

According to Howard's complaint, "approximately six to eight officers exited their vehicles, with their guns drawn, commanding Howard to drop his sign and get on the ground with his hands spread above his head."

Though Howard complied with the officers, he was handcuffed and led to the back of a police cruiser, the complaint says.

Howard said Sergeant John Hunter accused him of endangerment, and quoted the officer as saying, "What do you think you are doing threatening people on my interstate?"

Howard responded that he was not threatening anyone, and was "simply exercising his First and Second Amendment rights."

He claims Hunter responded, "Not on my overpass you're not."

Howard said when he asked why he was being arrested, Hunter responded, "I'm not arresting you, I'm detaining you."

Howard was then brought to the Hopewell Police station and handcuffed in an interrogation room. He says he was not questioned during this time, nor was he ever informed of any charges against him. After 90 minutes, he was given his weapons and returned to the site of his arrest.

"The U.S. government has unfortunately adopted a 'do what I say, not what I do' mindset when it comes to Americans' rights overall," said Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead-the nonprofit civil liberties organization is representing Howard in his case against Hunter.

"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."

The Commonwealth of Virginia does not prohibit the open carrying of guns, nor does it forbid ownership of semi-automatic weapons.

"Both weapons were lawfully owned by Howard at the time, and at no point during his time on the overpass did Howard draw or brandish either weapon," said Howard in his complaint.

The complaint continues, "At the time of the seizure, transportation, and detention of Howard, the Defendants did not have any probable cause to believe that Howard had committed a crime, nor did the Defendant have any legitimate or lawful basis to seize, arrest, or detain him."

In addition, Howard claims "the muzzle of his AR-15 rifle had been damaged by Hunter after he threw the rifle in the trunk of the police car." He also alleges that "the flash suppressor on the AR-15 was chipped, and the barrel was scratched."

According to a letter from Hopewell Deputy Chief of Police Robert Skowron dated Sept. 20, 2013, Hunter was "in violation of department policy" and would subsequently be "disciplined" and "sent to remedial training." The officer has since retired.

"Indeed, 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," says Whitehead in a press release from The Rutherford Institute.

"This same rule does not apply to law enforcement officials, however, who are armed to the hilt and rarely given more than a slap on the wrist for using their weapons against unarmed individuals."

Howard seeks nominal, compensatory and punitive damages on claims Hunter violated his First, Second and Fourth Amendment rights.

The Hopewell Police Department declined to comment.

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