On April 12th, a Starbucks employee called Philadelphia police to a store because two African-American men were sitting at a table without purchasing anything. Officers ultimately arrested the men, who spent about eight hours in a jail cell before being released without any criminal charges issued. The arrests, which were filmed and posted on Twitter, sparked immediate outrage regarding racial discrimination and profiling.

The Police Commissioner claims the officers did nothing wrong, while the Starbucks CEO apologized and Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney expressed heartbreak over the incident. These opposing viewpoints lead us to examine whether the arrests were justifiable, or whether they violated the constitutional rights of the two men.

Probable Cause for “Defiant Trespassing”

In order for an arrest to be lawful under the 4th Amendment, police must have probable cause to believe that the arrestee had committed a crime. Pennsylvania law sets out the criminal offense of “defiant trespassing,” which prohibits a person from entering or remaining in any place when they have notice that they are not supposed to be there. When the Starbucks employee asked the men to leave, it could constitute notice as required by the law. When the men did not then leave the store, it could constitute knowingly remaining in a place without license to do so.

That means the police officers arguably had probable cause to believe the men were committing the offense of defiant trespassing, which would make the arrest seem lawful. The Police Commissioner stands by the assertion that the officers followed proper policy and that the arrests were legal.

Possible Constitutional Violations

If an arrest is based solely on race without probable cause, it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the Starbucks case, the police can argue they had probable cause such that the arrest did not likely violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the two men in question.

However, when police practices or policies treat certain people of different races differently, such racial bias and profiling can violate another constitutional provision: the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. After the Starbucks arrests, many white people commented across various media outlets that they had stayed in a Starbucks without purchasing anything numerous times without being accused of trespassing. People pointed out that Starbucks is often a place to meet friends and these two men stated they were sitting and waiting for a friend before they ordered. If the men had been white, the police may not have actually arrested them for trespassing under these circumstances. If this is the case, the arrests would be wrongful due to the violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights.

When the police make a wrongful arrest, arrestees have the right to file a legal claim to seek relief for harm caused under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Depending on common practices of the Philadelphia police in this type of situation and whether there is evidence of profiling, the two men arrested at Starbucks may have a persuasive § 1983 claim.

What Happens Now?

The Starbucks arrests were the first of three highly-publicized incidents involving alleged racial profiling by businesses. Also in Pennsylvania, a golf club manager called 911 claiming that five African-American women were playing golf too slowly; and a gym employee in New Jersey called 911 claiming two African-American men had not paid to use the gym when in reality they had. No arrests were made in either of those cases, but if this trend continues, we could see a larger focus on the problem of racially-profiled arrests due to the bias of businesses.

With the recent criminal justice reform happening in Philadelphia, we should be moving away from racially-biased arrests instead of having them appear increasingly in headlines. Mayor Kenney has stated that the arrests of these two men were unacceptable and that Starbucks’ apology is inadequate. Action in Philadelphia in response to the incident includes:

  • The Philadelphia Police Department Internal Affairs Division is investigating how the arrests were handled.
  • The Philadelphia Police Department is establishing clear policies regarding how to respond to this type of trespass call.
  • The civilian Police Advisory Commission is looking into how to improve conversations about race and racism with police officers.
  • The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations is investigating the policies of Starbucks.

Discuss Your Situation With a Pennsylvania Civil Rights Lawyer Today

The Zeiger Firm represents defendants facing criminal charges as well as clients who suffer wrongful arrests in violation of their civil rights. If you would like to learn more about our legal services, please call us at 215-546-0340 or contact us online today.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.