Can a homeowners’ association private security officer stop and briefly detain a resident who is exceeding the speed limit set for the association’s privately owned roads by the Board of Directors? Can the association enforce a small fine against the homeowner for his alleged violation? On Friday morning, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court answered "yes" to both these questions in Poris v. Lake Holiday Property Owners Association, reversing in most respects a decision of the Third District of the Appellate Court. Our in-depth review of the facts and lower court rulings in Poris is here.  Our pre-argument preview is here.  Our report on the oral argument is here.

The defendant homeowners association was organized in 1965 in La Salle County. The Association Board of Directors voted to establish a 25 miles per hour speed limit on all private roads owned by the Association, with escalating fines to members depending on how fast the member was going. An accused violator has a right to a due process hearing before the citation committee, with the committee’s decision being appealable to the Board of Directors itself. To enforce the Association’s rules, an Association Security Department was established. The Security Department’s vehicles were equipped with oscillating lights, audio/video recording equipment and radar units. The security officers’ powers were limited. They didn’t enforce the Illinois Vehicle Code, they merely handed out citations for violations of the Association rules. When they stopped a vehicle which was driven by a member of the public — not a resident or a resident’s guest — they had no authority to issue anything; they merely warned the driver that he or she was on private property, and was violating the Association speed limit.

The plaintiff was clocked by radar traveling 34 miles per hour – a potential $50 fine. A security officer activated his oscillating lights and pulled the plaintiff over. The security officer directed the plaintiff to stay in his car, and took the plaintiff’s license back to his own vehicle.  A few minutes later, the officer returned to the plaintiff’s car, told him he was being recorded and was being issued a citation for speeding in violation of the Association’s rules.

A few months later, plaintiff sued the Association, the Board of Directors and the Chief of Security, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Security Department’s practices were illegal. Plaintiff also alleged false imprisonment. The trial court granted summary judgment and tossed the case out of court, but the Appellate Court reversed in several respects.

The Appellate Court analyzed the legality of the stop under 725 ILCS 5/107-3 as an attempted arrest by a private citizen. Holding that the Association’s rules weren’t an "offense" under the statute, the Court held that the stop was illegal. The Court also held that the Association wasn’t a "security company" under Illinois law, making the Security Department’s use of amber oscillating lights on its vehicles illegal. Finally, given its conclusion that the officer lacked probable cause to believe the plaintiff had committed an "offense," the Court held that the plaintiff had established the elements of false imprisonment.

The Supreme Court reversed each of the Appellate Court’s holdings in plaintiff’s favor. Writing for the Court, Justice Robert R. Thomas held that the Appellate Court had gone astray at the outset by analyzing the officer’s actions as those of a private citizen. Officers only stopped and detained vehicles on private property for violation of Association rules – not the Vehicle Code – and only issued citations to members. Given the long-established rule that Illinois courts don’t interfere with private associations’ enforcement of their internal rules absent mistake, fraud, collusion or arbitrariness, the Appellate Court was wrong to interfere with the internal affairs of the Association, according to the Court.

The Court rejected plaintiff’s theory that the Association was illegally exercising police powers. The General Not for Profit Corporation Act (805 ILCS 105/103.10(r)) granted the Association "all powers necessary and convenient" to accomplish its purposes. Besides, the Court pointed out, the Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/11-209.1) allows certain property-owning private associations to file a written request with local authorities to enforce the Vehicle Code on their private streets. The statute specifically said that filing such a request – which the plaintiff association had – did not prevent the private authority from adopting additional regulations governing its property, so long as they didn’t conflict with the law.

According to 625 ILCS 5/2-215(b)(13), private vehicles may not carry amber oscillating, rotating or flashing lights. Only security companies, alarm responders and "control agencies" are exempted. The Appellate Court had held that the Association wasn’t a security company according to the dictionary definition, but the Supreme Court pointed out that the Association fit comfortably within the definition of "company" from Black’s Law Dictionary. Concluding that the statute was ambiguous, the Court turned to legislative debates about the statute, and concluded that entities like the homeowners’ association security department were intended to qualify as "security companies," and thus the oscillating lights were legal.  Finally, the Court found that because the security officer had probable cause to believe that the plaintiff had committed a violation of Association rules, plaintiff’s claim for false imprisonment was barred.