Quite a few people sent me this video of Travis Heinze being told to leave Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, for “loitering.” I’m pretty sure I watched this play out in Rambo First Blood. Is this constitutional? Loitering ordinances have been misused by law enforcement for many years. The problem is, they create a criminal offense based on one’s mere presence in a public place, with the lack of any criminal intent. Therefore the police get total power to define who is a criminal, and who is acting lawfully. Of course, this can, and is, misused by police. Which is why the federal courts have addressed the constitutionality of these statutes.
In 2019, on a rainy April night in Sterling Heights, Michigan, 18- year-old Logan Davis had just gotten off work at a sandwich shop and was waiting under a nearby awning for his dad to pick him up and drive him home. A few minutes later, Davis ended up hand-cuffed in the back of a Sterling Heights police cruiser, having been forcibly taken to the ground and arrested for loitering. Davis subsequently sued the City of Sterling Heights and Officer Jeremy Walleman for unlawful arrest in federal court.
Recently, the federal court issued a memorandum opinion denying Officer Walleman qualified immunity. So we have both a video of what happened, and the subsequent opinion from a federal court after examining the video and sworn deposition testimony.
As I’ve explained many times before, you have stronger Fourth Amendment protections as a pedestrian, as opposed to an occupant of a vehicle. A warrantless arrest, like the one at issue here, is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if supported by “probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” An officer has probable cause “only when he discovers reasonably reliable information” that that an individual has committed or is committing a crime.
Where an officer lacks probable cause but possesses a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person has been involved in criminal activity, he or she may conduct an investigative “Terry” stop and briefly detain that person to investigate the circumstances. During a Terry stop, an officer may request that a suspect identify him or herself, and the suspect does not have a Fourth Amendment right to refuse the request. Additionally, a state may criminalize refusal to provide identification during a Terry stop.
Section 35-17 of the Sterling Heights’ City Code of Ordinances prohibits loitering and provides that prior to making an arrest for loitering, the officer must provide the individual with an opportunity to dispel any concern or alarm – which can be accomplished by the individual identifying themselves and providing a reason for their presence.
Section 35-19(B)(4) of the City Code provides that it’s a violation to fail to produce identification upon the request of an officer who is investigating possible unlawful conduct.
If Officer Walleman had reasonable suspicion to investigate Davis for loitering under § 35-17, he could lawfully order Davis to produce identification then, under § 35-19(B)(4), arrest him if he refused. To conduct an investigatory stop, reasonable suspicion requires that an officer have more than a hunch—they must possess a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the individual of criminal activity. Such a determination of probable cause or reasonable suspicion must be based on the totality of circumstances, considering “both the inculpatory and exculpatory evidence”— that is, an officer “cannot simply turn a blind eye toward evidence favorable to the accused,” nor “ignore information which becomes available in the course of routine investigations.”
In denying qualified immunity to Officer Walleman, the federal court held that, even if reasonable suspicion to investigate Davis for loitering existed early in the encounter—and it is not clear that it did—any reasonable suspicion, even arguable reasonable suspicion, was dispelled when Davis explained to Officer Walleman why he was standing where he was and showed Officer Walleman his Firehouse Subs shirt and badge. After that point, a jury could conclude, no reasonable officer would believe they had a justified suspicion of unlawful loitering, and without such a basis, Officer Walleman no longer had the legal authority to demand Davis’ identification and arrest him if he refused.
The Court pointed out that Davis was standing near Firehouse Subs, wearing a Firehouse Subs shirt, which he showed to the officer, and that more specifically, he was standing under the Dickey’s BBQ doors because there was an awning – and it was raining. He is observed on the video not acting suspiciously – not peering in windows, but just waiting.
It always comes down to this though: that police officers can’t seem to do anything, or talk to anybody, without forcibly demanding an ID from people. If people refuse, it becomes time to teach a lesson about the authority of government – a power trip. However, two can play at that game. Now a jury gets to decide whether government did have that authority. Perhaps it would be easier to just be a polite public servant and use common sense.