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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > June 2013 > Smith v. Stoneburner, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, May 10, 2013

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Smith v. Stoneburner, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, May 10, 2013

Quick Summary: This case should be a must-read for officers trying to understand how courts view — sometimes skeptically — an officer’s actions that intrude on individual liberty. Although this case turns on the complex legal question of qualified immunity, it is a candid view of how courts seek to protect individual liberty from undue police intrusion.

Facts: Charles Smith shoplifted a $14.99 cell phone charger from a Walgreens store. He was watched on video, seen by eyewitnesses, and detained; but he refused to stay in the store and walked back to his house (which apparently was within sight of the Walgreens). Two officers responded, reviewed the evidence, and went to Smith’s house to speak to him. There they met Smith’s 19-year-old younger brother, Logan, and asked if they could enter the house. Logan said he’d ask his mother and told them to wait on the back deck.
When Logan went into the house, Officer Stoneburner followed him inside, and Logan gave him a “Why are you coming in the house? I told you to wait outside” look. Eventually, Logan, Smith, and their mother, Donnetta, all went outside to the deck to talk to the officers. The officers questioned Smith and patted him down. Stoneburner asked if he could search the house, and Smith mumbled something and went back inside. Stoneburner followed, asking if there was anything he should know about. Smith started to close the door behind him, but Stoneburner stopped him and then reached in to grab Smith’s wrist. Stoneburner pulled Smith outside, bent him over the railing, and put him under arrest.
Why this case is important: This case explains, in plain language, the difference between how an officer views a set of circumstances and how the courts do. Many officers reading the facts of this case may not think the officer did anything wrong. But the Sixth Circuit disagreed, and so those officers now are facing a federal trial.

Consider each action in turn:
Following the brother into the house:
  • The officer’s view: Entering the house was not illegal because Logan watched him enter and did not object. Therefore, he consented to the entry.
  • The court’s view: The officer was told to wait outside but entered anyway. While Logan may have “acquiesced” to Stoneburner entering, he didn’t “freely invite” the officer in. Further, he gave the officer a dirty look for entering.
The court didn’t buy the officer’s argument that Logan “consented” to allow him to enter just because Logan didn’t tell him to leave. Logan’s version of the events was that he told Stoneburner to stay on the deck, but Stoneburner simply ignored him and entered the house anyway. Here, the court is suggesting that a citizen who has already told an officer not to enter should not be required to attempt to forcibly eject an officer who has entered anyway. Put simply, once Logan told Stoneburner to stay outside, Stoneburner had no legal authority to enter the house and violated the Constitution the second he crossed the threshold.
Entering the house a second time to reach in and grab Smith:
  • The officer’s view: He had probable cause to arrest because he had evidence that Smith had stolen property. Therefore, his entry was justified as hot pursuit or to prevent the destruction of evidence.
  • The court’s view: Smith, who stole a $14.99 phone charger, was simply leaving the questioning. Since he had consented to speak with the officers, he was free to leave as well. Therefore, he was not being “hotly pursued,” and the court flatly rejected the idea that he would destroy the evidence.
    • If a suspect — particularly one suspected of a low-level crime such as stealing a $15 phone charger — walks away from questioning and back into his house, he is not “fleeing.” Otherwise, as the court noted, “To call that choice ‘flight’ would make a fugitive out of any citizen who exercises the right to end a voluntary conversation with a police officer.” 
    • Moreover, even if there had been pursuit, it couldn’t have been “hot” pursuit because there was no emergency that required Smith’s immediate apprehension. As the court noted, if Stoneburner had gone to get a warrant, Smith “would have remained inside the house, a non-violent person alone with a non-violent phone charger.”
    • There was no serious risk to the evidence. There was eyewitness evidence of the stolen charger, and there was really no way to get rid of the charger. As the court noted, “Tossing the charger out the window would have accomplished little. This was not Venice. It was canal-free Sturgis, Mich.”
Keep in mind: The officers in this case were investigating the theft of a $15 phone charger, a fact that played heavily in the court’s analysis of the officers’ action, and they essentially invited themselves into the Smiths’ home without permission. There was no doubt in the court’s mind that the officers grossly exceeded the scope of any “consensual” permission from the occupants.
In the past, we’ve recommended that in order to think of what consent means, you should try putting yourself in the homeowner’s shoes and imagine a consensual encounter with a stranger such as a door-to-door solicitor. This is because when you are having a consensual conversation with a suspect, you are in the same circumstances as any other citizen. By definition, a consensual encounter is one where you are not exercising police authority to force someone to talk to you. The idea of “consent” is that you are not using your position of authority to coerce your way into someone’s house, rather that they are freely inviting you in.
So, imagine what your reaction would be if you asked a solicitor to wait outside and they instead walked into your house behind you. You would feel like they were violating your home and privacy. The second you do the same thing to a citizen, you are moving beyond the scope of a consensual encounter.   
Visit the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to view the entire opinion.