The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has upheld the stripping of immunity from a school resource officer who clearly violated the rights of multiple students, but still felt the need to be told twice by consecutive federal courts.
School is school and kids will get in fights. Some accusations about bullying brought several seventh grade students to the school’s office, along with Deputy Luis Ortiz. Ortiz reached the limits of his training and experience extremely quickly when he was unable to determine who was bullying who or why these seventh grade students wouldn’t give him the respect he so clearly felt he was owed. So, here’s how he made the most (constitutional violations) of a bad situation. From the decision [PDF]:
On October 8, 2013, a group of seventh grade girls (twelve and thirteen year-olds) were handcuffed, arrested, and transported in police vehicles from their middle school campus to the police station. An assistant principal had asked a school resource officer, Sheriff’s Deputy Luis Ortiz, to counsel a group of girls who had been involved in ongoing incidents of bullying and fighting. School officials gathered the girls in a classroom to wait for Deputy Ortiz. The group included both aggressors and victims, and the school did not identify or separate them.
When he arrived on campus, Deputy Ortiz initially intended to verify the information the school had given him and to mediate the conflict. Within minutes, however, Deputy Ortiz concluded that the girls were being unresponsive and disrespectful. He decided to arrest the girls because, as he explained to them, he was not “playing around” and taking them to jail was the easiest way to “prove a point” and “make [them] mature a lot faster.” Deputy Ortiz stated that he did not care “who [was] at fault, who did what” because “it [was] the same, same ticket, same pair of handcuffs.”
Ortiz’s decision to arrest a bunch of students to “prove a point” was corroborated by his own recording, which undermines the arguments he raised trying to secure immunity. The court doesn’t appear to be pleased it has to handle a case where the defendant is so very clearly in the wrong, but it does what it can to ensure Ortiz will be at least as displeased as the judges are.
There’s nothing nice said here about Ortiz’s actions and the court sees no reason to hedge its opinion with faint praise for law enforcement in general. At best, it admits handling school situations like these can be complicated, but the complexity of the situation doesn’t excuse Ortiz’s probable cause-less mass arrest of middle school students.
Deputy Ortiz clearly stated that the justification for the arrests was not the commission of a crime, since he did not “care who is at fault,” nor the school’s special need to maintain campus safety, but rather his own desire to “prove a point” and “make” the students “mature a lot faster.” The arrest of a middle schooler, however, cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.
Deputy Ortiz faced a room of seven seated, mostly quiet middle school girls, and only generalized allegations of fighting and conflict amongst them. Even accounting for what Deputy Ortiz perceived to be nonresponsiveness to his questioning, the full-scale arrests of all seven students, without further inquiry, was both excessively intrusive in light of the girls’ young ages and not reasonably related to the school’s expressed need.
As for any questions about whether or not it had been clearly established officers cannot arrest students to “prove a point,” the court quickly dispenses with that discussion:
At the time of the students’ arrest, it was clearly established that a police seizure at the behest of school officials must, at a minimum, be “reasonably related to its purpose, and must not be ‘excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.’” Defendants do not—and indeed, cannot—meaningfully contest Deputy Ortiz’s motivation for the arrests, which he stated multiple times. No reasonable officer could have reasonably believed that the law authorizes the arrest of a group of middle schoolers in order to prove a point.
The court is also unimpressed by the officers’ attempt to lie their way into the clear.
Defendants… claim that the students’ behavior in the classroom justified the arrest because there was reason to believe the students would engage in imminent fights. That assertion is belied by the audio record of the encounter, which “quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by” the officers. The students were mostly silent, only speaking to respond to the questions posed to them. But even taking at face value Deputy Ortiz’s claim that the girls were being disrespectful to him, and whispering among themselves, this conduct in no way rose to the level of probable cause that could have justified their arrests.
In fact, as the court notes, Ortiz never attempted to determine which students were engaged in bullying before arresting them. The three plaintiffs suing him were all victims of the bullying and they were rung up just like the instigators.
There’s no ducking the lawsuit. On top of that, Ortiz (and another officer named in the lawsuit) will be facing state claims in addition to the federal civil rights violation allegations. Without a doubt, officers sometimes arrest people simply to “prove a point.” But usually they’ll do it with a bit more subtlety and try to eliminate any recordings that might undermined their official narrative. Ortiz was so determined to teach a bunch of uncooperative seventh graders a lesson, he completely forgot to make the arrest minimally plausible.