No Qualified Immunity for Detaining Man Watching Traffic Stops

Chestnut v. Wallace, 947 F.3d 1085 (8th Cir. 2020)

Kevin Chestnut was jogging through a park in St. Louis, Missouri, when he saw an officer make a traffic stop. Chestnut stopped to watch the officer conduct the stop. Both Chestnut and the officer were aware of tensions between community members and the police, and that the area had been the site of some “testy exchanges” between police and citizens. After the officer concluded the stop, Chestnut resumed jogging. He stopped again when he saw the officer make another traffic stop.

The officer radioed for assistance in checking on a “suspicious man” watching “all the traffic stops.” Another officer arrived. Seeing Chestnut, the second officer illuminated him with a spotlight and approached to question him. The officer asked Chestnut for identification and Chestnut replied he had none. The officer then asked for Chestnut’s full name and Social Security number. Chestnut gave his name and date of birth, but only recited the last four digits of his Social Security number. The officer frisked Chestnut and directed another officer to handcuff Chestnut.

Chestnut asked to speak with a supervisor. A sergeant arrived and conversed briefly with Chestnut. Chestnut gave his Social Security number to the sergeant. The sergeant directed the handcuffs be removed and Chestnut released. Chestnut later sued, alleging he was detained, arrested, frisked, and handcuffed without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The court held the facts as alleged provided a basis for a reasonable jury to conclude the officers unlawfully detained and handcuffed Chestnut. One judge dissented.

A few black letter legal principles and bright-line rules to remember before discussing what happened in Chestnut’s case:

  • A person may be detained for a brief investigation upon reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is based on commonsense judgments about human behavior (see Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000)).
  • A person may be arrested upon probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and the person committed it. A substantial chance or fair probability of criminal activity can establish probable cause. (see Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)).
  • A person may be frisked for weapons upon reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous (see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)).
  • Any person has the right to observe, and even record, police activity in a public place (see Hoyland v. McMenomy, 869 F.3d 644 (8th Cir. 2017); Fields v. City of Philadelphia, 862 F.3d 353 (3rd Cir. 2017); ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000); and Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436 (9th Cir. 1995)).

The court held the facts as alleged provided a basis for a reasonable jury to conclude the officers unlawfully detained and handcuffed Chestnut. One judge dissented. Several factors might suggest why the court was divided. For example, in deciding the question of qualified immunity, the court had to accept Chestnut’s story that he intentionally placed himself in the officer’s headlights. On the other hand, one officer reported Chestnut was hiding in the tree line. The majority held Chestnut had committed no crime, was calm and cooperative, and there was no reason to believe he could be armed and dangerous. The court stated Chestnut’s initial refusal to provide his full Social Security number could not be weighed as supporting reasonable suspicion.

The dissent noted the officers dealing with Chestnut were entitled to rely on the first officer’s characterization of Chestnut as a suspicious person. The dissent observed onlookers could pose safety risks to officers conducting police business. Quipping “One man’s shadowy treeline is another man’s shade tree,” the dissent acknowledged that whether Chestnut was in the open or lurking in the treeline depended on the observer’s perspective, and the court should defer to the officer’s claimed perspective. The dissent also found a 20-minute detention was unreasonable because Chestnut initially refused to give his full Social Security number (though he did provide a full name and date of birth for a warrant check).

We can view Chestnut’s case as a close call, and therefore one that ought to be decided in favor of granting qualified immunity to the officer—but in this case, the majority held against qualified immunity for the officer. Sometimes observers do actually interfere with police operations, or worse, pose a significant safety risk. Use caution when detaining a person who is observing or video recording the police. Consider options such as an overwatch officer, if possible, and keep the encounter with any observer on a voluntary basis unless there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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