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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > July 2013 > State v. Steele, Ohio Supreme Court

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State v. Steele, Ohio Supreme Court

Question: Can an officer be criminally prosecuted for abduction when he detains a person he does not suspect of criminal wrongdoing?
Quick answer: Yes, absolutely.

Facts: While investigating a series of robberies, the officer in this case received a tip that a vehicle owned by Alicia Maxton had been driving around the neighborhood suspiciously. The next day, the officer went to the school that Maxton’s children attended and arrested R.M., one of Maxton’s children. R.M. did not fit the description of the robbers, but was aggressively interrogated by the officer. The officer threatened to arrest R.M.’s mother and siblings if he didn’t confess. Not surprisingly, R.M. eventually confessed, and the officer charged R.M., even though he didn’t think R.M. was guilty of anything.
While R.M. was being detained, the officer convinced Maxton to come to his apartment to discuss the case. He suggested that he could help R.M. out if Maxton had sex with him. She ultimately consented in order to help her son.
The evidence eventually established that the officer never believed R.M. was a genuine suspect. Instead, the officer had a self-professed practice of “bullshitting,” or arresting people without probable cause in the hope that a promising lead would come up. Another word for this practice: “illegal.” 
Nine days after R.M. was locked up on charges that the officer already acknowledged were false, the prosecutor found out that R.M. was still being detained. The prosecutor immediately dismissed the charges and had R.M. released. The officer ultimately was charged with multiple criminal counts, including witness intimidation and abduction.
Why this case is important: This case sounds like something out of a bad movie script: The dirty cop rounds up some innocent kid and tosses him in the slammer to see if anything shakes loose, and while he’s in there he coerces the kid’s mother into sex. But while these are extreme facts, they underscore the greatest source of tension between law enforcement and public: the extraordinary power officers can have over the lives of average citizens. The people place an incredible amount of trust in you, which is why abuse of police power draws so much scrutiny.
Of course, all officers eventually are faced with close cases on probable cause and must ask themselves, “Do I have enough to arrest?” Sometimes these decisions are made after careful deliberation and examining mountains of facts. Other times they are split-second decisions made on the side of a road. The court recognized this problem and said, “Police officers performing their valuable and often dangerous duties cannot be made to fear criminal charges any time an arrest or detention is made with what turns out to be less than probable cause.” Thus, the court narrowed its decision specifically to instances in which “a reasonable officer would know that there was no probable cause supporting the detention, no matter how brief.
Keep in mind: Don’t ever do any of this.
Visit the Ohio Supreme Court website to view the entire opinion.