Kids Miss the Prom. Lawsuit!

Thirty-eight kids pooled their resources to rent a party bus for the Junior/Senior Prom for Jensen Beach High School in Florida.  The kids took the bus to a restaurant for a pre-Prom dinner, and then to the Civic Center for the Prom. But they got to the Prom late.  No one was supposed to be admitted after 10:00, and the bus arrived at 10:15.

We’re guessing that if the principal had a do-over on this one, he would have just told the kids to go home—they were too late.  But that’s not what happened.  School officials decided to let the students attend their Prom, but only after a quick search of the bus.

The search turned up an empty champagne bottle and 12 plastic cups.  Looks like someone has been drinking. The bus driver said it must have been the kids. The kids said the bus had not been cleaned up when they got on board—must have been the previous occupants.

In any event, school administrators decided to conduct breathalyzer tests on all 38 kids.  But there was a problem.  The only assistant principal certified to administer these tests had gone home. And they only had two mouthpieces.

The principal called the A.P. and asked her to return, and dispatched someone else to the high school to gather up more mouthpieces.  Meanwhile, our 38 students were told they could not go into the building, nor could they go home.

Then it started to rain, which greatly increases the likelihood that this will be made into a “made for TV” movie.  Here’s how Haley O’Hanna (soon to be known as “the Plaintiff”) described the situation:

So we were outside in our prom dresses and there was no cover. We were outside in our prom dresses and our tuxes, all, and it’s like starting to drizzle.  I know drizzling doesn’t sound that bad, but when it gets about an hour and a half, it’s a lot.  Especially when my hair is all done.  I have a beautiful dress on. So that kind of stunk.

Finally, the breathalyzer-test-certified A.P. got back and the mouthpieces arrived and the school began administering the test to each student.  That’s when the school officials made another critical decision: No one goes into the prom until ALL 38 students are tested.

It’s not clear exactly when the testing was completed, but it was pretty close to midnight, which is when the Prom ended.  So in effect, none of them got to attend their Prom.  Nine of the students sued the district, the high school, the principal, the A.P., the Dean of Students and SRO and the county sheriff.

Oh, one other thing: all 38 kids blew a 0.00—no alcohol in the blood.

The students made two legal arguments: 1) the search of the bus was illegal; and 2) they were illegally detained.

The court held that the search of the party bus was legal.  The students did not have a legitimate “expectation of privacy” there. When they disembarked, they left nothing on the bus. So there was no privacy interest at stake. On top of that, the bus driver consented to the search.

As for the detention, the court split this into two parts.  Keeping the students waiting for the mouthpieces and the A.P. was reasonable and, therefore, legal.  The court reasoned that the school had a reasonable suspicion of drinking on the bus, sufficient to conduct a “minimally intrusive” search like a breathalyzer. Furthermore, the students had signed a form in advance of the Prom, acknowledging that they might be subjected to a breath test.  Keeping the kids waiting for this for 45 minutes to an hour was reasonable.

However, the court found fault with the decision to hold all 38 kids out of the Prom until all were tested:

We now hold, when government officials need to conduct breathalyzer or urine tests on students, the testing must be accomplished in a reasonably expeditious time period; once exonerated by the test, the student must be free to go.

When a student is tested as alcohol or drug free, there is no justification for continuing to detain the student with such definitive exculpatory evidence.

Thus the court held that the school officials had unconstitutionally detained these kids for longer than necessary. Then the court turned around and held that no one would be held liable for this error.  Since there was no prior case law, no binding legal precedent in place, the school officials were operating in uncharted territory. They were, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity.

The case is Ziegler v. Martin County School District, decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on July 28, 2016.


File this one under: LIABILITY