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Appeals Court: Handcuffing A Compliant Ten-Year-Old Is Unreasonable But Deputy Had No Way Of Knowing That

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Time and time again, courts remind officers of the law don't actually have to know the law to enforce the law. Yes, that's how it all works out for citizens, who are just as frequently reminded ignorance of the law is no excuse. This has lead to the prevalence of pretextual stops where minor traffic violations (that may not even be violations) are used to initiate long conversations with law enforcement officers with the end goal of obtaining consent for a search or to bring a drug dog onto the scene.

Qualified immunity, along with the good faith exception, have allowed an untold amount of law enforcement abuse. This has completely skewed judicial perception, turning law enforcement into noble fools and raising expectations of citizens' legal knowledge to that of seasoned criminal defense lawyers. Here's how occasional Techdirt contributor Andrew Norton breaks down the current state of judicial affairs:

2005, when [Tasers] were still being introduced to law enforcement at large, was a bad year for taser-victims, but not cops. In a California case, Bryan v. McPhearson, the court decided the officer’s actions qualified under the doctrine of qualified immunity (cops will only be responsible for excessive force if they act in a way that is so unreasonable any cop would have known such conduct was against the law – basically acting criminally) Since ‘the law on taser police brutality’ was still evolving when the incident happened in 2005 the cop should get a break from liability. You read that right, because no-one had told the cop, he didn’t have any notion of right and wrong. Ignorance is an excuse, if you wear the badge.

It’s this that characterizes many police brutality and excessive force cases. On one hand the police officers are professionals dedicated to knowing and enforcing the law, when they’re on the prosecuting side, their word is solid and their testimony is unquestionable. However if they’re a defendant, they’re amateurs who don’t know the law, can’t tell right from wrong, and whose training and instincts are so poor, that they can’t be held responsible for decisions made when doing their job because they have to do them quickly.

That's the ugly reality. Things that seem obvious to citizens are somehow inscrutable to police officers with years of legal training and, quite often, a degree in criminal law. Yet another "case in point" is this recent Fourth Circuit Appeals Court decision, in which something that seems obviously wrong is given a judicial hand-wave because the obvious wrong had not been "clearly established" by these judges in this circuit dealing with a carbon copy of these circumstances.

The civil rights lawsuit involves a minor who was in fourth grade at the time the violation occurred. E.W. is the minor suing. A bus surveillance camera caught her and another student fighting on the bus. Both were suspended by the school from riding the bus.

For whatever reason, the school didn't do anything about the altercation for 72 hours. Then they called in deputy sheriff Rosemary Dolgos, the school's resource officer. Dolgos questioned the other party in the fight and asked if she was injured. A.W. (the other minor in the altercation) showed the officer a couple of small bruises on her leg.

E.W. was summoned to the office. According to the deputy, E.W. didn't seem to care enough about the fight on the bus. From the opinion [PDF]:

Dolgos attempted to emphasize to E.W. the seriousness of the situation and the possible repercussions, telling her that adults could be jailed for such behavior. Still, in Dolgos’s opinion, “E.W. continued to act as if the situation simply was not a ‘big deal.’”

It wasn't a big deal. Or at least it wasn't something the school couldn't have handled without a law enforcement officer. But since a law enforcement officer was involved, law enforcement proceeded without any regard for the actual severity of the situation. Deputy Dolgos, presiding over an apathetic fourth grader, feared for her safety.

Dolgos placed E.W. in handcuffs from behind and reseated her. Dolgos inserted two fingers between the handcuffs and E.W.’s wrists to ensure that they were not too tight. In her affidavit, Dolgos stated that she was concerned about the physical safety of herself and the school administrators because of both the incident she observed in the surveillance video and E.W.’s apathy. Dolgos expressed concern in the affidavit that E.W. might act violently against her or someone else if she attempted to walk E.W. from the school to her patrol car.

Dolgos based these observations on her lack of knowledge.

Dolgos also admitted, however, that she had no idea whether E.W. had “any past or current behavioral issues or past involvements with law enforcement.”

She also likely could have controlled the situation without handcuffs, especially considering E.W.'s apparent compliance.

According to Dolgos, E.W. stood 4’4” and weighed about 95 pounds, while Dolgos stands 5’4” and weighs 155 pounds.

Once placed in handcuffs, E.W. began crying and apologized for the fight. She said she did not want to go to jail and promised she wouldn't hit A.W. again. Apparently this was the reaction Dolgos was looking for. Having been taken seriously enough as a law enforcement officer, Dolgos removed the cuffs and released E.W.

The school, however, remained unmoved. It contacted E.W.'s mother and told her they would refer the matter to juvenile services. E.W.'s mother responded with disbelief ("[s]o you're going to put my… daughter in the system when she's 10?") and came to the school to retrieve her daughter. The lawsuit followed.

The district court took a brief glance at Dolgos' motion to dismiss and sided with the deputy. The decision was, at best, perfunctory.

In a short paragraph, without citing any case law, the district court concluded that Dolgos’s actions did not amount to excessive force because E.W. was handcuffed for only two minutes and then released to her mother. The court further concluded that Dolgos was “at least” entitled to qualified immunity as to the § 1983 claim.

The appeals court disagrees with the will-this-do assessment of the lower court. It finds the use of force excessive, considering the surrounding circumstances. In doing so, it finds Dolgos' assertions ridiculous.

Here, Dolgos could not have reasonably believed that E.W. presented any immediate risk of harm to anyone. Like the adult suspect in Solomon, E.W. had no weapons and made no threats, see 389 F.3d at 174, and like the eleven-year-old in Sonora, she was calm and compliant as Dolgos spoke to her, see 769 F.3d at 1030. In fact, Dolgos recognized that E.W. appeared calm. See J.A. 23–24. Also similar to the suspects in Solomon and Sonora, E.W., at 4’4” and ninety-five pounds, was quite small relative to Dolgos, the arresting officer, who was a foot taller and sixty pounds heavier. See Sonora, 769 F.3d at 1030; Solomon, 389 F.3d at 174. Not to mention, E.W. was in a closed office and surrounded by two school administrators and a deputy sheriff. Given these facts, E.W. posed little threat even if she were to become aggressive.

The significant time that had elapsed—without incident—since the fight on the bus further negates any notion that E.W. posed an immediate threat. While the scuffle took place on Tuesday, January 6, East Salisbury Elementary School waited three days to even contact Dolgos. In the interim, E.W. was allowed to and did in fact attend school without incident, indicating that she did not pose a risk to the children around her, much less to the adults.

In addition, the ignorance of the underlying circumstances Dolgos admitted to (and likely hoped would weigh in her favor by making her unreasonable actions reasonable) only further adds to the factors weighing against handcuffing a compliant 10-year-old.

Moreover, Dolgos had no reason to think that the scuffle between E.W. and A.W. was anything but an isolated incident. E.W. had no prior behavioral issues or involvement with law enforcement, nor did Dolgos have any indication that she did. The use of force is an intrusion on Fourth Amendment rights, and an officer must have a reason for using or escalating force. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396 (intrusions on Fourth Amendment rights must be reasonably necessary given countervailing governmental interests). Even as to the altercation on the school bus, E.W., while unjustified in retaliating, did not become violent without physical provocation by A.W. Indeed, even a child with a history of attacking school officials should not be handcuffed if, at the time of handcuffing, she did not present a danger.

The appeals court also points to plenty of precedent, finding that handcuffing children tends to be excessive force in almost any situation. It also notes that the use of handcuffs in a school setting tends to undermine the mission of schools and school personnel. Students who see other students handcuffed for behavior that could be addressed by parental or school discipline are far more likely to distrust school administration and will be less likely to bring disciplinary issues to their attention. In extreme cases, parents and students may decide to take their scholastic business elsewhere, leaving the school with fewer students.

The court finds Deputy Dolgos violated the Fourth Amendment.

Dolgos took a situation where there was no need for any physical force and used unreasonable force disproportionate to the circumstances presented. We therefore find that Dolgos’s actions amount to excessive force. As such, E.W. has demonstrated a violation of her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

But here's where it all goes haywire. The court lists numerous reasons -- including circuit precedent -- why Dolgos should have known handcuffing children (absent extreme circumstances) would result in Fourth Amendment violations. It holds that this handcuffing was a Fourth Amendment violation. And then it goes on to declare that Dolgos can rely on her ignorance and her complete lack of better judgment to escape liability.

Conversely, it was not obvious that Dolgos could not handcuff E.W. here. Although precedent supports the conclusion that Dolgos acted unreasonably and violated E.W.’s Fourth Amendment rights, it did not put Dolgos on sufficient notice that her conduct was unlawful. Indeed, this Court previously stated that the use of handcuffs would “rarely” be considered excessive force when the officer has probable cause for the underlying arrest. See Brown, 278 F.3d at 369. And the parties do not point us to any controlling authority sufficiently similar to the situation Dolgos confronted. In fact, E.W. chiefly relies on Graham to define the clearly established law. Without more, we cannot conclude that it would have necessarily been clear to a reasonable officer that handcuffing E.W. would give rise to a Fourth Amendment violation.

This will help handcuffed students in the future, but it does nothing for E.W. And this conclusion comes after a lengthy diversion in the opinion in which the concurring opinion is called out for its willingness to say that handcuffing children reasonable.

The concurrence seems to suggest that elementary school children like E.W. are so inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable that officers would be reasonable in restraining them for our collective safety. Unsurprisingly, the concurrence’s authorities do not actually support that position or apply to this case. The concurrence cites to Knox Cty. Educ. Ass’n v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Educ., 158 F.3d 361 (6th Cir. 1998), for the proposition that young children are “unpredictable, in need of constant attention and supervision,” such that “[e]ven momentary inattention or delay in dealing with a potentially dangerous or emergency situation could have grievous consequences.” Post at 41 (quoting Knox, 158 F.3d at 378). What the concurrence leaves out is that Knox was discussing whether teachers may be required to undergo drug-testing in order to protect young children, who “could cause harm to themselves or others while playing at recess, eating lunch in the cafeteria (if for example, they began choking), or simply horsing around with each other.” See 158 F.3d at 378–79. Unless the concurrence suggests that we handcuff children as a reasonable method of “supervision” to prevent choking and horseplay, Knox has little relevance to the case at hand.

So, the concurrence is only right so far as it agrees with the rest of the court that Deputy Dolgos can walk into a school office and slap handcuffs on a ten-year-old without having to worry about being held liable for violating the student's Fourth Amendment rights. On all other points, it's somehow wrong, but only because it chose the wrong standard of law enforcement ignorance to cite. The concurring opinion somehow manages to be worse than the majority opinion, because it wouldn't even go so far as to establish the handcuffing of compliant prepubescents as "unreasonable."

This is a good decision as far as establishing a baseline goes, but the cases cited suggest the baseline had already been set, but only as to eight-year-olds (James v. Frederick Cty. Pub. Sch.) and eleven-year-olds (Tekle v. United States). Ten-year-olds are apparently in need of their own separate precedent. This is how much the doctrine of qualified immunity has erased the word "justice" from the justice system. Anyone who suffers a Fourth Amendment violation had better hope someone in exactly the same circumstances landed a appellate unicorn with their lawsuit, or law enforcement skates away with another win and a very slight narrowing of the scope of civil rights violations officers can get away with\.