This week the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a very important decision involving police misconduct, State v. Steele. The facts are just awful–so brace yourself.
It began with some robberies in a Cincinnati neighborhood in 2009. After one robbery, a resident took down the license number of a car that was perceived to be moving about suspiciously. The police traced the plate to Alicia Maxton.
Now Officer Julian Steele enters the picture. When he finds out Ms. Maxton has children, he goes to their school and arrests all three. To protect the identities of the minors, the Court only provides us with initials. One of the minors is RM. RM is driven to the police station where he is interrogated. Mom is not informed because Steele instructed the school people not to tell her what was happening to her children.
RM denies any involvement in the robberies. Steele tells this minor that if he does not confess, his mom will be jailed and she will lose custody of his siblings. Frightened, RM falsely confesses, and Officer Steele records the “confession” a second time. RM is then charged with the robberies and is imprisoned.
The next day, Steele tells the school that he does not really believe RM was involved in the robberies. Among other things, RM does not match the physical description of the suspect.
Over the next week, Steele arranges several meetings with Mom under the guise of discussing RM’s case. One such meeting is at Steele’s apartment and he tells Mom that he thinks he might be able to get RM out of detention because he can cut through all the damn red tape. And he wants to help out because he does not personally believe RM was involved. Then Steele changes the subject (or tries to anyway) to sex. Mom goes along with the overture because she believes Steele is the one who has the power to get her son’s release.
A few more days and, at last, this twisted scheme begins to unravel. A prosecutor knew about RM’s arrest but mistakenly thought he went home after the booking procedures. When this prosecutor discovers that RM has been in custody for 9 days, she immediately releases him and drops all the charges. Now Steele’s actions come under scrutiny. Steele at various points told the school, Mom, and prosecutors that he did not really think RM was involved in any crime–even prior to arresting him. Steele said the arrest would give him leverage as he continued the investigation, such as by getting Mom’s cooperation if she were the robber.
Steele is charged with various crimes using the “color of his office” — abduction, extortion, rape, and intimidation. The jury convicts on some of those and acquits on others. Steele’s appeal works it way to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Now we come to the important legal aspects of the case.
The jury convicted Steele of two crimes: (1) intimidation of RM; and (2) abduction of RM.
Steele’s attorneys argued that the crime of intimidation does not cover police officer conduct during interrogations because, basically, that’s what police do during questioning. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected that argument–saying that, yes, police do have some leeway to use deceptive tactics to get confessions, but there are legal limits. No physical force. No unlawful threats of harm. Here, the Court found that Steele knowingly coerced a confession. And then filed a criminal complaint even while believing the confession was false.
The Court then turns to the abduction aspect of the case. Steele’s attorneys said there was a legal error at trial. The jury was not properly instructed about a police officer’s “privilege” to arrest people. There is a valid purpose behind the privilege as cops should not be in hot water when they arrest persons in the good faith belief that they committed crimes–even if it turns out they were wrong. The Court rejected Steele’s arguments for two reasons. First, at the trial, Steele’s attorneys agreed to all the jury instructions and so they cannot complain now. But secondly, the same facts supporting the intimidation charge also support the abduction offense. Steele took RM out of school in handcuffs, took him to the station, and then “directed threats at his entire family, including his school-aged siblings. … He coerced a confession from RM, which he admittedly thought was false, and filed a criminal complaint against RM using that false confession.” The legal “privilege” of police officers does not cover such situations.
Bottom line: The Court affirmed Steele’s convictions. He received a 5 year prison sentence with five additional years of community control.
A few observations:
1. This case will become part of police training materials in the places where good training programs exist. It will also be taught in law school courses.
2. Credit the prosecutors–they moved quickly when they discovered what had happened.
3. What about other cases Steele was involved in? They need a very close review.
4. The governor and state legislature need to act here. Two million dollars to Alicia Maxton and full college scholarships to the state universities for the minors sounds about right.