The Post ran my story documenting the rise of private police in Virginia and elsewhere. The story centers on a man named Michael Youlen, who petitioned the courts to get law enforcement powers and then set up his own police department using a little-known law.
Youlen is what is known as a “special conservator of the peace,” or SCOP, in the state. State figures show that the number of SCOPs has doubled over the past decade to about 750, mirroring the rise of private police forces nationwide.
The story has generated numerous questions about how the SCOP program works, how much authority the SCOPs have and how they interface with the criminal justice system.
I talked with professor John F. Preis of the University of Richmond School of Law to get some answers to questions about SCOPs. The answers are a blend of his commentary and my reporting.
Do I have to obey an SCOP?
Preis said the short answer is: It depends. You have to obey a SCOP if he or she has lawful authority over you. The SCOP’s authority, if it exists at all, is derived from an order entered by a circuit court. The court order typically defines actions the SCOP can take (for example, the use of flashing lights) and the geographic areas in which the actions can be taken. Geographically, the authority could cover a single corporate campus or an entire judicial circuit consisting of five or six counties — although the state legislature moved to limit such broad jurisdictions in a bill passed last week that is expected to be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
If a court order grants the SCOP authority to act as he or she is acting, you have to obey the SCOP. If the SCOP is acting outside the parameters laid out in the court order, the SCOP would have no more authority over you than any other citizen. Of course, it is difficult to know during a traffic stop or other interaction what is in the court order.
Is it illegal for an SCOP to racially profile someone?
Surprisingly, Preis said: Maybe not.
Racial discrimination is unlawful if it is perpetrated by the government or a private entity operating a place of public accommodation. In some situations, SCOPs could be classified as “the government” because they are engaged in traditional law enforcement activities on public property.
If an SCOP is simply patrolling a private community, however, it is doubtful that the SCOP would take on the identity of the government.
Some privately owned places, such as stores or amusement parks, are probably places of public accommodation, and SCOPs would, thus, be barred from profiling in these places. Other private places, such as gated communities, are generally not places of public accommodation. So, unless the community’s homeowners association prohibits racial profiling, the SCOP will probably be free to profile.
What happens if an SCOP doesn’t read me my Miranda rights?
It mostly depends on whether the SCOP is operating on a public street and, thus, is best classified as a public law enforcement officer. If so, the SCOP must read you a Miranda warning before interrogating you. If the SCOP fails to do this, any confession you make is inadmissible at trial.
If the SCOP is operating in the private sphere, however, he or she is not duty-bound to Mirandize you. For instance, Preis said a shopkeeper would not be obliged to read a shoplifter his rights before obtaining an admission that he or she stole a candy bar. If a shopkeeper hires an SCOP to patrol the store instead of doing it himself, there is no reason to think the SCOP has a duty that is any different from that of the shopkeeper’s.
How do I file a complaint about an SCOP?
There is no system for lodging complaints against an SCOP in Virginia, so the best place to start would be with his or her employer. The circuit court that grants an SCOP’s commission also has the power to revoke it, so a petition could be made with the court.
When an SCOP hands out a ticket, where does the money go?
That varies widely depending on who employs the SCOP, where the ticket is handed out and what type it is. In the case of Youlen’s Manassas Junction LLC, fines from traffic citations he issues go to the local and state coffers. In the case of parking violations, those fines go to the property management company of the apartment complex that appoints him.
Are SCOPs on the public payroll?
SCOPs are employed by a variety entities and institutions in Virginia. They include hospitals, corporations, counties, museums and private security companies. SCOPS are on the public payroll only if they are employed by a government agency.
How do I become an SCOP?
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has guidelines. But generally, a potential SCOP must undergo a background check, drug and alcohol screening, and 40 hours of training (likely soon to be increased to 130 hours) to receive the “armed” designation.
With the sponsorship of an employer, the applicant then petitions a circuit court for a commission in the jurisdiction in which he or she wants to work. The courts sets the terms of the SCOP’s commission, such as the geographical scope of his or her power.