Renee C. Byer /

One night almost five years ago, the manager of an In-N-Out Burger restaurant in Fairfield confused a group of well-behaved African American customers with a separate group of African American patrons he said went nearly "out of control."

City of Fairfield ordered to pay court costs in restaurant ‘citizen arrest’ case

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 2, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 3, 2014 - 9:42 am

One night almost five years ago, the manager of an In-N-Out Burger restaurant in Fairfield confused a group of well-behaved African American customers with a separate group of African American patrons he said went nearly “out of control.”

Fairfield police officers arrested four of the well-behaved group, none of whom had criminal records, under the auspices of “citizen arrests” by the manager and based entirely on his account. They were charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest, although the charges were later dropped.

Results of the misidentification were continuing this week, and have cost Irvine-based In-N-Out Burgers, Inc., and the city of Fairfield a lot of money.

Three of the four who were arrested sued in Sacramento federal court, accusing the restaurant manager and Fairfield police officers of trampling on their civil rights.

Their lawyers argued that, before police officers may effect a “citizen arrest,” they have to investigate the allegations to ensure their accuracy. This was not done, the officers later admitted.

During the course of the civil suit, the four officers who responded to the manager’s call for help contended that In-N-Out Burger has the right to refuse service to anyone without giving a reason. Everything else about the incident is beside the point, they maintained.

The four young African Americans faced the possibility of being saddled with criminal records “simply because they walked into a fast food restaurant at the wrong time and were the wrong color,” their lawyers said in a court brief.

In-N-Out Burgers, Inc., settled with the three who sued by paying them $180,000.

The city chose to go to trial. Last year, a jury found the plaintiffs were arrested without probable cause, violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But the panel awarded them a total of only $12,150, to be paid by the city, finding the arrests were not a deliberate attempt to interfere with anyone’s constitutional rights and that Officer Nick McDowell, the lone individual defendant by the time of trial, did not act maliciously.

Nevertheless, the federal magistrate judge who presided at the trial on Monday awarded the students’ attorneys $316,750 in fees and costs, to be paid by the city.

In making the award, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd said in his 31-page order that “plaintiffs’ success in the present case cannot be measured solely by the amount of the jury’s verdict.”

Quoting from his own 2011 fees order in another civil rights case that went to trial, Drozd wrote that outcomes like the one in the Fairfield case “act as a deterrent to law enforcement and serve the public purpose of helping to protect” law-abiding citizens “from being subjected to similar unlawful treatment in the future.”

Because the three African American young people pursued vindication of their legal rights, “citizens of this district who served on the jury found that a defendant law enforcement officer’s conduct was in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” Drozd wrote. “The court trusts that the defendants, and those in their department, will take heed of the verdict and adjust their future conduct accordingly.”

Shortly after midnight on July 4, 2009, a group of African American high school students became rowdy, disruptive and intimidating in the In-N-Out Burger. Police responded to a call from the manager on duty, Marc Young, but the four officers arrived as the troublemakers left.

Minutes earlier, a group of six African American young people, with no knowledge of what was going on, had come into the establishment. Young told the officers that this newly arrived group was part of the problem and he wanted them out of the restaurant and off the property. The officers forced four of the six to leave their seats and exit the restaurant; the other two were at the counter ordering.

The driver of the vehicle in which the six were traveling was still in the restaurant, and the ousted four refused to leave the parking lot on foot. McDowell obtained “citizen arrest” complaints from Young and, on the orders of a police sergeant, Markus M. Hall, then 18; Monique G. Rankin, then 18; and Lindsey K. Sanders, then 19, along with another member of their group, were arrested. They were handcuffed, photographed, booked, and released approximately nine hours later.

Fairfield City Attorney Gregory Stepanicich did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In-N-Out Burgers, Inc., spokeswoman Phyllis Cudworth said via email the company would respond to an inquiry “as soon as possible,” but it had not done so in time to include the response in today’s Bee.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

Read more articles by Denny Walsh

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