Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — STURGIS (AP) — The case seemed simple: Solve the misdemeanor theft of a $14.99 phone charger. Three years later, it could be costly to the city of Sturgis.
A federal appeals court said Friday that a jury should decide if officers used excessive force against a young man suspected of shoplifting and his mother when they entered a home without a warrant.
“Shoplifting of this sort offers no reason by itself for banging a suspect’s head against a wall,” said a three-judge panel at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court said the officers aren’t immune to a lawsuit, affirming a decision by U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist in Grand Rapids. The ruling means the case likely will go to trial or be settled.
In 2010, a Walgreens store in Sturgis, 50 miles south of Kalamazoo, reported the theft of a phone charger. The package was found in the store, but the part of the charger that attaches to the phone was cut off. Charles Smith, then 20, was confronted by a store manager but declined to stay and walked home.
Two officers, Mark Stoneburner and Damon Knapp, arrived at Smith’s home. Stoneburner entered the home and pulled Smith outside to a deck. Smith alleges that his head was pressed against a wall as the officers arrested him and bent his body over a railing.
“Dueling accounts create a question of fact about whether Charles resisted arrest,” the appeals court said.
Lawyers for the officers argued that they may have needed to get into the home without a warrant to prevent possible destruction of evidence. The court wasn’t impressed.
“Tossing the charger out the window would have accomplished little. This was not Venice. It was canal-free Sturgis, Michigan,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote.
Sturgis Public Safety Director Dave Northrop said the court’s decision was a “shock.” He said the officers didn’t violate Smith’s rights.
And the missing phone charger? The case was closed when Smith pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor, disturbing the peace.