Cop doesn’t wait for dad; takes kid to the hospital for a mental health assessment. Lawsuit.

Police Officer Shawn Olney took a middle school girl to a local hospital over the objections of the girl’s father.  The student had confided in the principal that she had been thinking about suicide.   She mentioned the guns and knives in the family home that made her “want to hurt herself.”  The principal called in Officer Olney. 

Officer Olney called the dad, informed him of the girl’s mental state, and told him that she would take his daughter to the hospital.   The dad told the officer not to do that. He would leave work immediately, come to the school and take the girl home.  That would take about 90 minutes.   Officer Olney chose not to wait for the dad, and took the girl to the hospital over his objection. 

Hospital staff did a mental health assessment of the student, which included a blood draw.  They determined that she did need treatment. Dad eventually arrived, still objecting to the way this was handled.  The court tells us that “after considerable discussion” the staff released the girl to her father, provided that he take her immediately to a nearby mental-health center.  The dad did that. 

The dad sued the officer personally, arguing that this was an unconstitutional seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment.  The officer claimed qualified immunity and asked the court to toss the case out. The district court refused to do so, but now the 6th Circuit has reversed that.  Officer Olney was entitled to immunity from personal liability.  Case dismissed.

The case nicely illustrates the protection that government officials have from personal liability under federal law.  The 4th Amendment allows a seizure of a person for a psychiatric evaluation only if there is “probable cause to believe that the person is dangerous to himself or others.”  The 6th Circuit held that this standard was satisfied here.  Significantly, the student self-reported her suicidal thoughts.  Couldn’t the officer have honored the dad’s request to wait 90 minutes and then let him take her home?  Maybe. But the court noted that “Olney had reason to fear that [the student] might hurt herself at home, given that [she] herself had just said that ‘she sees things’ there (i.e., guns and knives) that made ‘her want to hurt herself.’”

This one is Machan v. Olney, decided by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on May 14, 2020.   


Tomorrow: how important is it that the student is “upset” about bullying?