Making a bad guess in a gray area….

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On September 15th of last year the Daily Dawg was about a case in Missouri involving an SRO who escorted a student to the school office where the student was questioned by two city police officers. The court refused to dismiss the case against the SRO, holding that the facts alleged amounted to a seizure under the 4th Amendment.  Now that decision has been reversed by the 8th Circuit.

The Circuit Court did not make a ruling about whether or not this was an “unreasonable seizure” which could lead to liability. Instead, the court relied on the “qualified immunity” doctrine, holding that the SRO did not violate any legal principle that was “clearly established” at the time.  I like the way the court described the purpose of qualified immunity:

The principle at the heart of these approaches is that state actors are liable only for transgressing bright lines, not for making bad guesses in gray areas.

The Circuit Court recognized that the 4th Amendment applies in the public school setting, but it applies differently.  Behavior that amounts to a “seizure” outside the school setting may not be a “seizure” during the school day. The lower court said that it was a “seizure” anytime a government actor “by means of physical force or show of authority….in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.”  If you take that literally, every student in every school is being “seized” all day long!  The Circuit Court pointed out the obvious about students in public schools:

Teachers and administrators control their movements from the moment they arrive at school; for example, students cannot simply walk out of a classroom. Nor can they walk out of a principal’s or vice-principal’s office in the middle of any official conference. 

Thus government actors (teachers and administrators) use their authority to “restrain the liberty of a citizen” every day, all day.  Based on that common sense observation, the Circuit Court strongly hinted that what the SRO did was not a violation of the 4th Amendment. The SRO never laid a hand on the student, did not display a firearm, and did not physically restrict the student. All she did was pull the student out of class and escort her to the office for questioning. Then she left, closing the door as she did.  She was not even in the room when the questioning took place. The court held that even if that was an “unreasonable seizure” it was not clearly established as such.  The SRO did not cross an obvious bright line. At worst, she made a bad guess in a gray area.  Case dismissed.

This one is L.G. v. Columbia Public Schools, decided by the 8th Circuit on March 18, 2021.  It’s cited as 2021 WL 1030977.


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!