Retrial Ordered on Handcuffed 11-Year-Old
(CN) - Citing confusing jury instructions, the 9th Circuit vacated a verdict against Sonora, Calif., over the handcuffing and removal from school of an 11-year-old.
The appellate panel also determined that the police officers in question are entitled to qualified immunity on the child's federal claims as the law has not clearly established that handcuffing and driving a juvenile from school to a relative's place of business implicates Fourth Amendment rights.
The incident at the heart of the lawsuit happened in September 2008 at Sonora Elementary School. C.B., as he is named in the ruling, forgot to take medication for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was experiencing a "rough day."
He was found unresponsive on the playground around noon.
Karen Sinclair, the gym teacher and school disciplinarian who first met C.B. when he was in kindergarten, knew that the boy had a habit of becoming unresponsive and taking off. In fourth grade, C.B. ran away from gym class and was heard saying that he was "tired of feeling the way he felt and he wanted to go out into traffic and kill himself." When Sinclair asked C.B. about what he had said at the time, he told her that "sometimes I feel like running into traffic."
She approached C.B. that day in 2008, but he refused to speak with her or go to her office, which had traditionally been a "safe zone" and place for him to "cool down."
Worried that C.B. might run into the road, but unable to make him speak or move, Sinclair had school officials call the police.
C.B. remained unresponsive when Officer Hal Prock attempted to talk and joke with him for several minutes. Prock testified that he worried about C.B.'s safety given that the boy was described as "a runner."
With safety allegedly in mind, Prock put a compliant C.B. into handcuffs. Sinclair saw Prock take measures to make sure the cuffs were not too tight. C.B. testified that the handcuffs hurt, but acknowledged that he never complained to the officers about the cuffs. He also told the court that the officers were "not mean" to him.
Prock contacted C.B.'s uncle to come pick him up, but the uncle asked for them to instead bring C.B. to his business. Prock testified that he placed C.B. in his patrol vehicle only after speaking to the uncle.
Police Chief Mace McIntosh testified that they kept C.B. in handcuffs while in the police car because "it is not a safe environment inside the patrol car with somebody that is not restrained." By the time Prock released C.B. to his uncle, C.B. had begun communicating and any worries about C.B. running away had diminished. The entire interaction between the police and C.B. lasted roughly a half hour.
C.B. then sued the city of Sonora, Chief McIntosh and Officer Prock for false imprisonment and emotional distress under state law, and unlawful seizure and excessive force under federal law.
McIntosh and Prock testified that they believed school authorities did not want C.B. on campus because he was uncontrollable, so they were allowed to take temporary custody of him without a warrant under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.
The jury initially cleared the police on the excessive force and unlawful seizure claims. Though the jurors felt that the officers had established the affirmative defense of privilege on the emotional distress claim, they awarded C.B. damages on the issue in response to Question 11C on the verdict form. They did not record any findings on the false arrest claim.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger declared the verdict inconsistent and incomplete, telling the jury that if they found the officers' conduct under the IIED claim to be privileged, then it wipes out the claim, and they cannot award damages. He also said that the jury needed to decide the false arrest claim.
After deliberating for four more hours, the jury reached a wholly different verdict, finding the city and the officers liable on all the claims, and awarding C.B. damages.
A three-person panel of the 9th Circuit vacated the verdict Thursday, finding that the trial judge had failed to properly clarify why he directed additional deliberations.
When they deliberated for the second time, the jurors struggled with whether their findings on the state-law claims were viewed as inconsistent, rather than the response to Question 11C about the damages, according to the 30-page ruling.
The court found Wanger's emphasis on consistency troublesome.
"In sum, in more than one way, the district court improperly sent a message to the jurors that they got it wrong the first time," Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly wrote for the court, sitting by designation from Seattle. "Defendants are entitled to a new trial."
One member of the appellate panel disagreed with their next finding that McIntosh and Prock have qualified immunity on the federal claims.
"The officers were informed by school officials that C.B. (1) was out of control, (2) was 'a runner,' (3) had been 'yelling and cussing,' (4) had not taken his medications, and (5) could not remain at school any longer," Zilly wrote. "No clearly established law would put a reasonable officer faced with these circumstances on notice that taking C.B. into temporary custody under [California statute] was unlawful."
Zilly added: "No clearly established law at the time suggested that the officers were required to conduct additional investigation beyond talking to C.B. before they could rely on the information they received from school officials, particularly when a prolonged investigation might increase the risk of C.B. running away and onto a busy road, from which he was separated only by an unlocked gate."
Judge M. Margaret McKeown agreed that the case required retrial but found C.B's seizure unconstitutional.
"At trial the officers testified that they had no reason to believe C.B. had committed any crime or threatened anyone's safety, nor was there any evidence that the child was a danger to himself," McKeown wrote. "It is undisputed that C.B. did not act out of control, did not make any attempt to run away, and was compliant throughout. Under these circumstances, C.B.'s prolonged detention was unreasonable."