A couple Saturdays ago, Mary Moriarty attended a memorial service for a friend's mother in Inver Grove Heights.
As she left, Moriarty looked for a place to stop and get some work done. She settled on a nearby McDonald's, where she ordered a Diet Coke and sat down.
Almost immediately, Moriarty, chief public defender for Hennepin County, noticed tension between the McDonald's employees and one group of customers: six or seven black boys ranging in age from about 11 to 16, by Moriarty's guess.
Moriarty heard an employee yelling from behind the counter. Then the same person came and sat near the boys' table, eventually yelling at one of the younger boys to "Pour it out!" At issue, Moriarty learned, was a fountain drink that the boy was attempting to refill.
The woman told the boy, whom Moriarty says looked "mystified," that he hadn't paid for the drink, and that she was calling the police. After she walked away, Moriarty and another customer moved to intervene, first offering the boy the $1 it would've cost to buy the drink. He refused, saying it was already paid for.
Then they tried offering the $1 to the woman behind the counter. Moriarty says the woman told her before she got there, the boys had taken water cups and filled them with soda, only paying after she confronted them.
Besides, she went on, even if they've paid, they're only allowed to sit so long before their continued presence in the restaurant becomes "loitering." Moriarty wasn't convinced about that part.
"That's ridiculous," the defense attorney says. "The number of times I've gone into a McDonald's for a Diet Coke and seen retired people sitting there all morning, or people like me, with my computer out and working... that happens every day."
Moriarty eventually gave up on talking to the woman and went back to her seat, where she worked another 10 minutes as the table of boys next to her sat there, "perfectly well behaved." Then the doors opened, and in walked two Inver Grove Heights cops.
A female cop approached the table and told the boys to leave, telling the younger one that refills are only free to the person who bought a drink, and that sharing refills is "theft." Moriarty, who noticed a couple of the boys were still eating, approached the cops and gave her version of events, saying the boys hadn't been disruptive, and that her attempt to pay for the drink was rebuffed.
She says the cop told her she was "just doing her job," that they had no choice but to come after being dispatched, and now had to remove the boys because it was "what [McDonald's] management wants." Moriarty urged the cops to use their own discretion and talk to the boys instead, pointing out that the "optics" of ejecting black youths "certainly look bad."
The cop pushed back, eventually telling Moriarty that she was "distracting" her, and if she didn't sit down she'd be charged with "obstruction." At that, one of the older boys in the group said they'd agree to leave.
"That felt really awful," Moriarty says. "The idea he clearly didn't want me to get in trouble, and would volunteer to leave, was really kind of painful."
Moriarty says the female cop told the younger boy he was getting off easy, that she was "doing him a favor," and they could've been charged with stealing.
The boys left without further incident, but the scene left a bitter taste in Moriarty's mouth. A couple days later she called and left a message with Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Melissa Chiodo, explaining what she'd seen from the police that day. Moriarty hasn't heard back. In a statement to City Pages, Chiodo said she was "aware of the allegation," and that the case had been referred to the department officer responsible for "internal affairs and complaints."
McDonald's has not responded to questions about its refill policy or view on what constitutes loitering.
Moriarty doesn't expect the cops to face any discipline, and wouldn't encourage that, either. (She adds that the second cop, a man, seemed more open to what she was saying, and eventually gave his card to both Moriarty and the oldest boy.) To her, the scene evoked bigger issues about policing. She says the cops made little effort to engage these boys in a conversation, instead simply telling them to leave and threatening both them and Moriarty with arrest.
"We've all seen these videos where someone calls the cops at a coffee shop, or another business, and—you don't need to be used that way," she says. "I've talked to a couple current or former cops about it, and... they all said this is really bad, in terms of, cops should be problem solvers.
"You don't have to be some kind of lobotomized agent of a business. You do have some independent choice here."