A School Yard Lesson on the Fourth Amendment and Qualified Immunity

On September 10, 2018, in Scott v. County of San Bernardino, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to a police officer who arrested a group of middle school girls accused of fighting and bullying to “prove a point” and to “teach them a lesson.”  The Court held that because plaintiffs’ arrests were without justification and lacked probable cause, plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated and Defendants should be held liable.

Factual Background
In September and October 2013, seventh-grade students from Etiwanda Intermediate Middle School were involved in ongoing incidents of bullying and fighting.

On September 6, 2013, in the school’s playground, a minor, L.V., assaulted another student, L.R., and was suspended from school.   After the assault, L.R.’s guardian asked school officials for help in filing a restraining order against L.V. but was told that it would not be “practical” since the girls attended the same school.

A few weeks later, L.V. told other students that she was going to assault another student, S.S.

L.V. carried out her threat and punched S.S. The following weekend, L.V. and a friend attempted to assault L.R. and S.S. in the park.

Eventually, the three girls (plaintiffs in the lawsuit) were summoned by the School’s Assistant Principal to discuss the conflict.  Four other students were also called into the meeting.  The Assistant Principal informed Sheriff Deputy Ortiz that a group of female students were involved in an “ongoing feud” and asked that he attend the meeting and help “mediate the problems.”

Deputy Ortiz later testified that during this meeting, he believed the girls were unresponsive, and “based on their body language and continued whispering,” were behaving disrespectfully.  An audio recording of the meeting, however, “reflects mostly silence in response to Deputy Ortiz’s questioning; no student is captured on the audio as speaking loudly or being verbally aggressive.”  Within minutes of Deputy Ortiz’s arrival at the meeting, however, the audio recording captured Deputy Ortiz’s threat to take all of the students to jail to “prove a point.”  Deputy Ortiz is heard stating that he did not care who was at fault, that an arrest would make them “mature a lot faster,” and that to him, “it is the same ticket, same pair of handcuffs.”    Deputy Ortiz subsequently announced that he was arresting all seven students for unlawful fighting in violation of California Penal Code § 415, and called Deputy Thomas for backup.

Six of the seven girls, including the three plaintiffs, were handcuffed and transported to the police station.  The alleged main aggressor, L.V., however, was released to her father on the school campus.  The school did not take any disciplinary action against any of the girls and there were no criminal charges filed.

The Lawsuit
Through their guardians, several of the minors filed suit against Deputy Ortiz, Deputy Thomas and the County of San Bernardino.  The District Court granted summary judgment to the students, holding that there was no justification for the arrests under California Penal Code § 415 and that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Fourth Amendment and Qualified Immunity
Under the Fourth Amendment, public school officials are prohibited from unreasonable searches and seizures.  However, in the school setting, the restrictions are somewhat relaxed under the special needs standard of reasonableness.  For school authorities, they must show that the student’s search or seizure was reasonable under the circumstances.  To determine whether the action was reasonable, the court must consider whether the “action was justified at its inception” and whether the action was “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”  Citing New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985).

In applying this two-part test, the Court held that the deputies’ actions were unreasonable because the students’ arrests were not “justified at their inception.”   At the onset of the meeting, Deputy Thomas was only provided generalized allegations of group bickering and fighting, and he specifically stated that he did not “care who is at fault” and that their arrests would “prove a point” to make them “mature a lot faster.”  The Court held that even if, for the sake of argument, the arrests were justified to maintain campus safety, “[t]he arrest of a middle schooler, [] cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.”

The Court also held that the students’ arrests failed the second prong of what was reasonable as the arrests were not “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”  The school’s need was the dissipation of what was characterized as an “ongoing feud” and “continuous argument” between the students.  As such, “[t]he summary arrest, handcuffing, and police transport to the station of middle school girls was a disproportionate response to the school’s need.”

While police officers may be insulated from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity when an officer’s conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” the Court here, held that “no reasonable officer could have reasonably believed that the law authorized the arrest of a group of middle schoolers in order to prove a point.”  Furthermore, because the officers had no probable cause to arrest plaintiffs as “Deputy Ortiz had no information suggesting that L.R., S.S., or R.H. were individually responsible as the instigators or aggressors instead of as the victims,” Defendants “lacked both justification and probable cause of their arrests.”

Lesson Learned
While the school setting offers officials some reprieve in dealing with unresponsive or disrespectful teenagers, arresting students with the intent to “prove a point” is not reasonable for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.  Officers should never put on the hat of a parent and discipline a student by using state action.   Instead, officers should determine whether a crime occurred and articulate whether probable cause exists for an arrest, similar to all other Fourth Amendment requirements.  When a student is perceived as disrespectful and unresponsive in the school setting, officers should leave the matter to the school to impose appropriate disciplinary action.

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