The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to revive a civil rights lawsuit against a New Mexico police officer for arresting a 13-year-old boy who burped repeatedly and disrupted his class, a case that raised questions about police conduct in school settings.
The justices refused to hear an appeal by the boy’s mother of a lower court’s ruling in favor of Albuquerque officer Arthur Acosta that granted him qualified immunity, a legal defense that protects certain public officials from suits as long as they did not violate a clearly established law or constitutional right.
Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in considering whether to take up the case. Before joining the Supreme Court in April, Gorsuch was part of the three-judge federal appeals court panel in Colorado that previously ruled 2-1 in favor of Acosta. Gorsuch was the dissenter in that ruling, saying the boy should not have been arrested for intentionally belching.
The legal dispute began in 2011 when the seventh grade student at Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, called F.M. in court papers, burped continuously during his physical education class while his fellow students encouraged him.
Acosta arrested the boy for the misdemeanor offense of interfering with the educational process in violation of state law, handcuffed him and drove him to juvenile detention. F.M. told the officer he had done nothing wrong and did not resist arrest, according to court papers.
F.M.’s mother filed a civil rights suit seeking monetary damages from Acosta, claiming unlawful arrest and excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Acosta claimed qualified immunity. Last July, the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed, saying he could have reasonably believed an arrest was warranted given that the broad wording of a state law against disrupting the educational process.
Gorsuch wrote that the boy should not have been arrested for “trading fake burps for laughs in gym class.” Quoting Charles Dickens, Gorsuch said the law is not as much of an “ass” to lead to that.
In her appeal to the Supreme Court, the teen’s mother said Acosta should have known that New Mexico law clearly establishes that arrests of school children must be reserved for violent offenses or when other students are at risk of harm.
Criminalizing “everyday acts of misbehavior” pushes kids out of school and teaches them that there is no limit to the power of the state to arrest them, the mother argued.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)