SROGA v. WEIGLEN (August 18, 2011)

Chicago Police officers arrested Kevin Sroga 13 times between November 2003 and January 2008. Three are at issue on this appeal. First, he tried to stop a City employee from towing his car. A crowd gathered and a police officer instructed him to stand down. Instead, he jumped on the car as it was being towed away and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Second, only months later, he found himself in another confrontation with a City employee ready to tow one of his cars. This time, he got into the car and ignored repeated police requests to get out. One of the officers on the scene noticed a Chicago Police Department ticket book in yet another Sroga vehicle. He was arrested on suspicion of theft. Third, a year or so later, he was arrested for criminal trespass to "state-supported" land. He was taking a shortcut through a police station parking lot that was marked with signs that said "Parking Police Personnel Only." He brought suit against the City pursuant to § 1983, asserting that each of these three arrests was an unreasonable seizure. Judge Guzmán (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants. Sroga appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Posner, Kanne, and Hamilton affirmed. The Court addressed each of the three arrests in turn. With respect to the first arrest, the Court noted that disorderly conduct is not particularly well-defined. One of its definitions is to provoke a "breach of the peace." The Restatement (Second) of Torts defines breach of the peace as an offense "likely to cause an immediate disturbance of public order." The Court concluded that jumping on a moving car being towed away fit that description. The Court rejected Sroga's argument that a police bulletin warning officers that courts typically throw out disorderly conduct cases when the complaining witness is a police officer amounted to some limitation on this arrest. With respect to the second arrest, the Court found probable cause that Sroga exercised control over the ticket book knowing that it was not his and without any effort to return it to its rightful owner. The fact that Sroga may have had an explanation for the ticket book’ presence (which the Court doubted) did not negate probable cause. As an aside, the Court added that Sroga could have been charged at either of the first arrests with resisting or obstructing the performance of a police officer in that he disobeyed lawful orders in both cases. Even though the charge was not identified by the officers at the time, it would have defeated his claims of unreasonable seizure. The Court turned to the third arrest for criminal trespass. Here, the Court concluded that the police did not have probable cause to arrest Sroga merely for crossing the parking lot. In order to make out a charge of trespass on state-supported land, there must be some indicia (a fence or signs) that put the public on notice that their entry is forbidden. The only signs here referred to the parking of cars. But the Court did find that Sroga's conduct in the parking lot, where he looked into several police cars and struck up a conversation with an officer, did give police probable cause to believe that Sroga was interfering with the lawful use of the land. The Court added that Sroga could not have been convicted of the offense since notice is a requirement -- and the notice was insufficient. Two officers stated that they thought the signs provided adequate notice and the Court found those understandings, although incorrect, not so unreasonable as to defeat probable cause.