Open-carrying Army veteran gets $15,000 settlement after Bellingham cop detains him at gunpoint

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 15, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - A retired U.S. Army master sergeant reached a $15,000 settlement with the city of Bellingham after a police officer detained him at gunpoint because he carried a holstered pistol in a city park.

As part of the agreement, the police department must train its officers and 911 dispatchers how to avoid a similar incident in the future.

On the morning of Dec. 19, 2011, John Laigaie III, who served 35 years in the military, went to Bloedel-Donovan Park to walk his dogs.

Three buildings in the park had just been tagged with graffiti, and Laigaie told a parks employee that he'd be willing to paint over the tags. Police needed to take photos first, however, so Laigaie headed out of the park. Near the parking lot, a police officer approached Laigaie about the CZ-82 9mm pistol holstered on his right hip.

"Are you wearing a gun, sir?" asked Officer Allen Bass, according to a complaint for damages posted on the Lustick Law Firm's website. (The complaint was never formally filed, and the potential lawsuit never made it to court.)

"Yes, I am, aren't you?" Laigaie replied.

Bass informed him, incorrectly, that guns are illegal in a city park.

"'Excuse me, you're wrong,'" Laigaie recalled saying. "Then, boom, (Bass') gun came out."

In Washington, an "open-carry" state, law-abiding citizens can carry firearms in most public spaces. Schools, courthouses and bars are among the handful of exceptions. But guns are allowed in parks.

Bass, a 19-year veteran at the Bellingham Police Department, didn't know that off-hand, according to the Lustick complaint. He radioed his sergeant to confirm whether Laigaie had broken the law.

Laigaie offered to show him the correct state law: He carried a copy of it in a gun rights pamphlet.

So, still clutching a dog leash in each hand, he reached toward his jacket, "in slow motion," he said, to unzip the front. He picked out the paper from his jacket pocket with two fingers and presented it to Bass, who kept his weapon drawn, at a distance of about three feet, Laigaie said.

Bass didn't take the pamphlet. Instead, he demanded identification. Laigaie refused, "pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," according to the Lustick complaint.

The officer alternated between the "low ready position" - poised, but with the barrel pointed to the ground - and aiming at Laigaie's chest, according to the plaintiff.

Laigaie, a strong believer in the Second Amendment, told Bass he was "acting stupidly," and demanded, in a raised voice, to know what he had done wrong. Bass wouldn't say, but he detained him, according to the complaint.

A Bellingham parks employee heard shouting and came over to say he knew Laigaie, and that he didn't pose a danger - in fact, he'd just offered to paint over the graffiti.

Eventually, after about 10 minutes, a police sergeant arrived and explained the law, Laigaie said. Bass told him he was free to go. Laigaie told Bass sorry for calling him stupid.

But Laigaie, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, said the encounter caused him to question his faith in law enforcement to do the right thing. He sees the incident as a violation of his civil rights.

Assistant City Attorney Shane Brady, who negotiated the settlement that was reached last week, declined to comment. The city admits no wrongdoing.

"But that's how governments apologize, by settling the way they did," said Laigaie's attorney, Mark Kaiman. The additional police training in open-carry laws, he added, "speaks well for the city. ... We don't want to trash the city."

City attorneys had not released the original claim paperwork as of Thursday, and Kaiman declined to release it on behalf of the law firm.

Sgt. Shawn Aiumu, the acting police department spokesman, declined to comment on the facts of the incident, or give Bass' side of the story. The department has since undergone several refresher training courses on open-carry law as part of the settlement, Aiumu said.

Laigaie hopes the visibility of the case prevents Bellingham officers from repeating history.

"They used to believe that man-with-a-gun equals bad guy, period," Laigaie said. "But that's not the case anymore."

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