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When Does a School Police Officer Have Probable Cause to Arrest a Student?

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit got to untangle this case in Scott v. City of Albuquerque, No. 15-2154, (10th Cir. 2017).

In January 2009, Quentin Scott (“Scott”) was a thirteen-year-old seventh-grader at Grant Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Scott had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Both affected his behavior and concentration when he was in class.

As a special needs student, Scott had accommodations in the classroom. Teachers had to let him choose where he sat, to minimize auditory and visual distractions, and to let him move around the classroom every so often. Scott also had permission to leave the classroom if he was anxious or distracted. He usually would take refuge in the janitor’s office and help him clean. The morning of this incident, Scott told his teacher that he was taking a break. He left the classroom and sat down at a desk that his teacher had put in the hallway. He tried returning to class a few minutes later, but the lesson was too far ahead. He decided to walk to the janitor’s office.

The School Resource Officer (“SRO”) saw Scott in the hall and thought he was skipping class. The SRO asked Scott’s teacher if he was allowed to be out of class and she said he was not supposed to be out of class and she thought he was skipping. The SRO grabbed Scott, handcuffed him and marched him down the hall. Scott did not like being touched, and thought that the SRO was trying to make a point of humiliating him by marching him through the school in handcuffs. Scott was taken to the SRO’s office, where he was kept and interrogated for more than an hour. Scott began crying because the handcuffs were causing him so much pain. He was then taken to the Juvenile Detention Center (“JDC”) and booked on charges of interfering with the educational process.

Scott filed a lawsuit against the SRO, the Chief of Police, and the City of Albuquerque (“City”). In his complaint, Scott brought claims the Fourth Amendment, saying his arrest was unlawful and that the SRO used unconstitutionally excessive force. The complaint also alleged that the arrest violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Scott moved for partial summary judgment on his Fourth Amendment claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment on all of Scott’s claims. The district court denied Scott’s motion and granted the defendants’ motion. The district court also said the SRO was entitled to qualified immunity.

On appeal, Scott claimed the district court erred when it granted the SRO qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects governmental officials from liability for civil damages for conduct that does not violate clearly-established statutory or constitutional rights. When a defendant asserts a qualified-immunity defense, the plaintiff must show that the defendant violated a federal constitutional or statutory right, and that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. If a plaintiff fails to establish either prong, the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.

Scott argues his arrest by the SRO was unconstitutional, since the SRO lacked probable cause. The Court stated that Scott is right. The arrest was unconstitutional. This Court agreed with the district court that the SRO is entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.

Based on the facts of this case, nothing would have given the SRO reasonable belief that Scott was “willfully” trying to interfere with the educational process at his school. True, Scott’s absence eventually led to a distraction to teachers and staff, but there was no intent to disrupt. In fact, it was quite the opposite—Scott left the classroom to avoid disrupting his class.

The Court says because the SRO had no probable cause to arrest Scott under the state law Scott supposedly violated and since a warrantless arrest without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment, Scott has shown the SRO violated Scott’s right to be free from unlawful arrest.

The Metier Law Firm is committed to assisting people with personal injury claims throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and we frequently serve as co-counsel to law firms nationwide. Tom Metier recently secured the largest personal injury verdict in Colorado