What’s All the Starbucks Fuss About? [Opinion] - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

As an attorney who has defended and prosecuted hundreds of cases, I’ve learned that there is always more than one side to every story. Let’s take a look from the viewpoint of Starbucks and from the Philadelphia police department as to why two black men were recently arrested in a local Starbucks for “nothing.”

Starbucks has struggled with the fact that their facilities are being used as public restrooms. There are numerous articles about Starbucks’ bathroom being used by the public and Starbucks trying to limit or even remove bathrooms from their facilities in urban areas. Some cities and states require that businesses provide public restrooms. And when I say public I mean everybody that behaves themselves.

From the business perspective, here are the issues:

  • Employees need to wash their hands and use the bathroom as required by law.
  • Cities like New York and Philadelphia have higher homelessness populations, drug users, and freaky people looking to get it on. Obviously, this is bad business.
  • Health issues, we have all seen disaster bathrooms—the type that you would prefer to drink from your dog’s water bowl than to stand or sit in

So what does the bathroom have to do with the arrest? It seems that Starbucks has been struggling with balancing offering a public place to eat, drink, and relax for their customers (those who purchase something) versus everyone else.

So how does Starbucks find itself in this position? Simple! By not setting a clear policy about who can use their facilities and by not teaching employees about discretion. For example, if Starbucks had a clear policy stating that you can occupy their space for 10 mins and then you must purchase something or leave then this could have been avoided. If the employee had been taught discretion, then they would have tried multiple scenarios before attempting to call the police. It would be equivalent to an escalation of force that police use.

Asking a person to purchase goods to occupy space in a business establishment is not unusual. No one really goes to the movie theater and says, “Let me sit down and start watching the movie. My friend will be here in a few mins with the tickets.”

The scenario from the Starbucks employee was as follows:

  • The Starbucks employee was unclear about the policies for use of the facility and without the ability to use discretion the employee asked the men to purchase something.
  • After the men refused, the employee called the police, thinking there was no other option, and said that the two men refused to purchase anything or leave.

From the police perspective:

  • The police receive a call that two men who were not customers refused to leave a place of business when asked.
  • The police not knowing who these men were, arrived with little information and not knowing what to expect.
  • The police listen to both sides. The employee says the men refused to buy something and refused to leave when asked. The men essentially say we are not buying anything now, and we are not leaving because we are waiting.
  • Well the police just heard the same thing the employee told them and therefore the men are trespassing as their ability to be in the store has been revoked by an agent of the premises and they are there without their permission.

Now some people may still think they were loitering but loitering without being attached to criminal activity is legal according to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court stopped the government from harassing you if you’re peacefully assembling. However, you are not allowed to peacefully assemble in private homes and businesses when you don’t have their permission, Hence the term trespassing. Trespassing equals crime which equal arrest.

Of course, this whole incident could have been avoided with discretion. The only people who used discretion was the D.A.’s office as they declined to prosecute.

Moral of the story: Don’t let a $5 coffee send you to jail.

As for Starbucks, I applaud you for your rapid response to this incident, but sensitivity training won’t resolve this, you need to do more.

Lastly, a bit of free legal information for the folks at Starbucks. Let pregnant women with a pregnancy disability and people with disabilities use the bathroom as you don’t want to face a lawsuit for a violation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

Editor’s Note: Opinion pieces are solely the opinions of the author and not representative of Black Enterprise.

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Samara Lynn

Samara Lynn is a technology journalist, covering the industry for a decade. Her work appears in The Wirecutter, Tom's Hardware, PC Mag, and other online outlets. She's the author of "Windows Server 2012: Up and Running" and previously worked in the IT industry. She's currently the digital manager at Black Enterprise.


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