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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Popsicle-Arson Charges Mined for Civil Rights

(CN) - A boy who faced arson charges over Popsicle sticks he burned at home can sue his arresting officer, but not a juvenile-detention staffer, the 6th Circuit ruled.

S.L.'s mother called the Pierce Township, Ohio, police on Dec. 4, 2006, after arguing with her teenage son. She told officer David Homer that the boy, whose age is not given, set fire to some Popsicle sticks in his bedroom, possibly trying to cast a black-magic spell on her.

Though the kindling was not visible, S.L. admitted to Homer that he set some Popsicle sticks on fire and left the room before the sticks went out. When asked if he was afraid the house might catch on fire, the teen said: "I really don't care. I don't want to be here."

Homer then arrested S.L. for aggravated arson and took him to the Clermont County Juvenile Detention Center, where staff member Edward Bartley signed a complaint against the child based on Homer's sworn statement.

S.L. was detained for a week before he was released and the charges dismissed.

Through his guardian, the child sued Homer, Bartley and Pierce Township for violations of his civil rights, arguing that Homer had no probable cause to arrest him for arson.

A federal judge in Cincinnati declined to grant Homer immunity, but found that Bartley could not be held liable for Homer's underlying allegedly illegal arrest.

The 6th Circuit affirmed Monday, finding that Bartley reasonably relied on Homer's assessment that the burning Popsicle sticks constituted arson.

"How could Bartley ensure that S.L.'s arrest was supported by probable cause unless he undertook the independent determination of probable cause that Gerstein and McLaughlin held was not required?" Judge Alice Batchelder wrote for a three-judge panel, citing the Supreme Court cases Gerstein v. Pugh and Riverside v. McLaughlin. "Such a rule would mean that every police officer, corrections officer, and courtroom deputy who takes custody - however briefly - of an arrestee such as S.L. must make this independent assessment or risk § 1983 liability."

It was Homer, not Bartley, who arrested S.L., without a warrant, and allegedly without probable cause. S.L.'s claim against Homer stands for this very reason, the court held.

However, there is "no authority to support the proposition that an alleged constitutional violation by an arresting officer imputes § 1983 liability to each successive officer who takes custody of the arrestee, or that each successive officer independently 'seizes' the arrestee within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment," Batchelder said.

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