Lot cop (copy)

A Rockbridge County man who was banned from the Valley View Walmart has sued in federal court to invalidate the ability of Roanoke police officers to ban people from the store property.

Roanoke police have banned at least 1,000 people during the past 22 years from the Valley View Walmart and adjacent store property without ever obtaining legal authority from the retailer to do so, a newly filed lawsuit says.

Jeremiah Henderson of Rockbridge County is asking a judge to invalidate all the police actions, called trespass bar letters, dating back to at least 1997. His lawsuit was filed May 15 in U.S. District Court in Roanoke. A city official had no comment.

Police can regulate access to private property upon the owner’s written request, but the Valley View Walmart’s ownership entity “has never authorized the Roanoke Police Department to act as its trespass bar agent,” the lawsuit said.

A letter barring Henderson from the property in 2018 stated, “This action is taken pursuant to the written permission of the landowner of said property to effect such actions as filed with the Roanoke Police Department,” according to the lawsuit. “You are formally notified that your continued or subsequent presence on the premises [at 4807 Valley View Boulevard] will subject you to arrest for trespassing as authorized by the Code of Virginia and the Code of the City of Roanoke.”

Gary Bowman, Henderson’s lawyer, sought a copy of the permission document from the city. Correspondence between a Walmart store representative and city police dated February 2020 was released but Bowman said he thinks that the document falls short of the requirement that written permission from the property owner be in effect at the time the trespass bar letter is issued.

Walmart Real Estate Business Trust has owned the store and grounds since 1996, according to city records. Bowman contends that entity is not Walmart but an entity set up for tax purposes. The lawsuit dated the trust’s ownership to 1997; the reason for the difference between the lawsuit and city records was unclear.

The legal action traces the requirement for written permission to the passage of a state law that was enacted in 1999. Nothing in the law requires Walmart or any other property owner to involve the police in access management. It merely says that for police to act as the owner’s agent, a written agreement must be on file at the police department. Property owners are free to ban individuals on their own with full legal effect.

Once an individual has been banned from a property by a legally valid authority and returns, he or she can be convicted of criminal trespassing, according to Bowman. Bowman said the courts have convicted individuals of criminal trespassing at the Valley View Walmart.

Henderson had paid for his purchases and was exiting the Walmart on Oct. 25, 2018, when a store greeter “stopped him and asked to see his receipt. The greeter then requested assistance on an intercom,” according to a 2019 lawsuit that Henderson filed. That action, a multicount complaint directed at Officer Austin McClain, said a Walmart employee approached Henderson and the greeter, followed by McClain.

“I want him out of the store,” the employee told the officer, speaking of Henderson, the lawsuit said.

The 2019 lawsuit describes a physical incident between Henderson and McClain that allegedly then occurred. That case is also pending in Roanoke federal court.

Henderson received his trespass bar later that day, his latest lawsuit said.

The city has denied Henderson’s allegations against McClain in the earlier case, but has not yet responded to the lawsuit over authority for trespass bar letters.

Bowman said Henderson plans to request reimbursement of his legal costs if he wins the recently filed case. He wants only nominal financial damages, such as $1 for himself or for him to divide with those who also received trespass bar letters at the store since 1997 as “just a recognition that the person bringing the suit was right,” Bowman said.

“This is just trying to change the policy,” Bowman said.

It’s likely others who received the letters will not be identified as part of the case, nor does Bowman believe it would be necessary, he said.

Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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