Starbucks has been called out for having the police come and arrest two Black men who were peacefully waiting for a friend in one of its Philadelphia locations. The Starbucks Manager claimed that the two men did not make a purchase, asked to use the bathroom, which request was denied, and then refused to leave after they sat down and were told to depart. The Manager took it upon himself to call the cops, who responded and arrested the two Black men, reportedly holding them in custody for eight hours before they were released without charges. Starbucks corporate responded quickly, reassigning the Manager, and issuing an apology as protests and embarrassing publicity have begun brewing, stirring up potentially negative effects on sales.
Starbucks is liable for race-based discrimination pursuant to federal law, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination and requires equal access within public accommodations. To make such a case against Starbucks, the offended parties will have to show that they were singled out and not given equal access to the Starbucks facility on the basis of their race. Evidence of disparate treatment, showing that non-protected class members (white people) have not been treated the same way by Starbucks, i.e., being approached and questioned by Starbucks staff when they are minding their own business peacefully; ordered to leave when they do not make an immediate purchase; refused access to the bathroom when they do not make a purchase; and, having the police called on them when they refuse to leave a Starbucks under such circumstances, will establish a Title II claim.
In addition to federal law, many states have statutes, which also prohibit discrimination within facilities open to the public. Accordingly, Starbucks is also liable for discriminatory treatment under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, P.L. 744, following essentially the same analysis that applies under Title II.
More involved is Starbucks’ (Starbucks’ Manager’s) liability for false arrest, and the police officers’ liability for false arrest and violations of 42 U.S.C §1983, the predicate statute for civil rights violations by law enforcement based on substantive state law. Under Pennsylvania law, a private individual, as well as arresting police officers, are liable for false arrest when (1) they cause the detention of another person, and (2) the detention is unlawful, i.e., not based on probable cause. The analysis of the false arrest claims varies between the Starbucks Manager who brought in the police and apparently implored them to make an arrest, and the police officers themselves.
Generally, police officers are given qualified immunity for false arrest when they receive information from a complainant and reasonably rely on that information, which amounts to probable cause to detain an individual. Probable cause exists when the facts and circumstances, which are within the knowledge of the police officer at the time of the arrest, and of which s/he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that the suspects have committed or are committing a crime. Reasonable reliance is the operative phrase.
In the Philadelphia Starbucks case, the Philadelphia Chief of Police has defended the officers who arrested the two Black men, saying they complied with departmental policy. However, it is not so clear that the officers were reasonable in cuffing, arresting and detaining the men even briefly, let alone for the reported eight hours. While the Starbucks’ Manager may have informed the officers that the men were “trespassing” for example, it was incumbent upon the officers to take all circumstances into account, including the readily observable and obvious circumstances such as other people present in the Starbucks holding up their phones and recording the arrest and those people present adamantly telling the officers that the men did nothing wrong, that they were just sitting there, not bothering anyone, and protesting that they were only being singled out because they were Black. The lack of a sign in the Starbucks indicating that people are required to make a purchase to sit inside and wait for someone, or to use the bathroom, would also be a clue that there wasn’t any crime being committed. While police officers need sufficient breathing room not to worry about errors, which become clear only in retrospect, while making quick life and death decisions on the streets, they cannot shield themselves from liability for false arrest by simply disregarding the obvious, including overwhelming indicia that no crime has been committed, when someone makes a complaint.
The Starbucks’ Manager and Starbucks do not, under the law, have a qualified immunity defense available to them in a claim for false arrest. Again, the lack of a clearly posted policy indicating that sitting at a table and waiting for someone, or using a Starbucks’ bathroom, requires a purchase is strong evidence that the two men were being singled out and forced to leave, one way or the other, because of their skin color. Proof that other non-Black individuals have been permitted to do the same in Starbucks without demands to leave or have been given the bathroom code without questions asked, and without having the police called on them to be arrested, would also support a viable false arrest claim against Starbucks’ Manager and Starbucks.
The Philadelphia Starbucks case is another example of how obvious racial profiling and racism, are still pervasive throughout the United States. The constant stream of social media videos revealing these instances, as sinister as the shooting of unarmed Black men or as obnoxious to a security guard tracking and following a Black person (including doctors, judges, attorneys and other law abiding Black people) around a store until they leave, conclusively establish that racism is alive and well in the U.S.
Commercial establishments have legitimate business interests in establishing race-neutral protocols for security and business purposes. Posting signs indicating that bathrooms are for customers only or tables are reserved for patrons making purchases only, and enforcing those restrictions in an even handed way is legal and often necessary for businesses to survive and thrive. However, to allow xenophobic and racist activities to go unchecked denigrates the law and deteriorates the moral fiber of our country. We would be better off if we demanded the same approach to the intolerance of racism as we have had to crime and apply a “broken windows” approach. If we tolerate or permit the seemingly minor or innocuous instances of disparate treatment, then we will continue to see more Black people shot, choked and killed without justification. There should be zero tolerance for those “quality of life” and “minor” instances of racism just as we are intolerant of breaches of other conduct, and we should use our laws to the fullest to protect the moral integrity of our society and places of public accommodation.