On September 14, 2015, a 14-year old freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving ISD brought a homemade contraption to school. He showed it to his geometry teacher, who told him it was “really nice.” Later he showed it to his English teacher. She asked him “Is that a bomb?” “No,” the boy responded, “it’s an alarm clock, see?”
Thus began the transformation of this obscure young man from an anonymous high school student into his new destiny: the Irving Clock Boy.
Just google it and see what happens.
As most readers know, the boy was questioned, handcuffed, arrested, charged with a crime and suspended from school for three days. The alleged crime was possession of a “hoax bomb.” Later all charges were dropped, and the Irving police chief acknowledged that the entire arrest was a mistake.
The parents sued the City of Irving, the school district, the principal and several police officers. In a decision handed down on March 13th, federal judge Sam Lindsay dismissed all of the claims.
In this week’s Daily Dawg I’m going to make just two points about this lengthy court opinion. Today, we focus on the standards for “qualified immunity” for school officials. Tomorrow, we will look more specifically at the role of the principal.
Qualified immunity is designed to protect governmental officials who have to make tough judgment calls. The idea behind qualified immunity is that a government official (police officer, teacher, administrator) should not have to face legal liability just because they make a bad call. They should be held liable only when they do something that is colossally stupid or in clear violation of the law. I’ve not seen a case that uses the term “colossally stupid” but I think that gets at the general idea. Here is what the cases do say:
Qualified immunity is designed to protect from civil liability “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
The plaintiff in this case argued that the overreaction of the Irving officials in this case satisfied that standard. The court disagreed. In so doing, the court separately analyzed the actions of the principal, the arresting officers, and the other police officers. I think the officers who actually made the arrest came closest to losing their immunity. The plaintiff pointed out that the student repeatedly asserted that the contraption was nothing but a clock; that he never sought to scare anyone; and thus, the student showed no intent to create alarm or panic. The argument was that there was no reason to make the arrest in the first place.
The crime of possession of a hoax bomb requires some proof of an intent to 1) make someone believe that it’s a bomb; or 2) cause “alarm or reaction” by a public agency. In this case there was “alarm or reaction” by a public agency, but was there an intent by the student to cause that reaction?
The court noted that there are no binding court decisions about how the “hoax bomb” statute is to be interpreted. In such a vacuum, the officers were able to convince the court that they were not violating “clearly established law,” nor were they “plainly incompetent.” Thus they were entitled to qualified immunity.
Tomorrow we’ll point out the lesson of this case for principals. So stay tuned!
The case is Mohamed v. Irving ISD, decided by the federal court for the Northern District of Texas on March 13, 2018. We found it at 2018 WL 1305455.
DAWG BONE: WANT TO AVOID LIABILITY? DON’T DO SOMETHING COLOSSALLY STUPID OR IN VIOLATION OF CLEARLY ESTABLISHED LAW.
Tomorrow: But what about the principal?