(CN) – Police officers had the right to question a 7-year-old who brought a marijuana pipe to school, telling teachers the bowl belonged to his parents, a federal judge ruled.
Weatherly Elementary in northwest Pennsylvania called the police in September 2008 when a teacher found a bowl used to smoke marijuana in the possession of a second-grade student.
After consulting with the Carbon County District Attorney’s Office, Police Chief Gary Veasie interviewed the 7-year-old in front of his principal.
In the interview, Joshua allegedly “admitted that he brought the bowl to school, that it belonged to his parents, that his parents smoke from bowls, and that there were other bowls in his home,” according to a summary of the somewhat disputed background.
The district attorney then convened a drug task force and obtained a warrant to confiscate marijuana and drug paraphernalia from the boy’s parents, Michael and Brandy Parks.
Police arrived at Parks house later that afternoon, and Brandy says she watched officers come through her door with guns drawn. She says she had to beg officers not to handcuff her in front of her children.
Disputing those claims, the officers note that they called a K-9 unit because the house was allegedly in considerable disarray. Though the officers did not find any drugs, they did confiscate another two pipes left in plain view.
Police filed drug-paraphernalia-possession charges against Michael Parks when he came home from work to find the search ongoing. The 7-year-old was put in temporary foster care.
Prosecutors ultimately withdrew the charges, noting that they did so to reallocate prosecutorial resources, not because they believed the charges deserved exoneration or could beat the charges.
The Parks sued Weatherly, Chief Veasie, Officer Michael Bogart and Officer Brian Markovchik, alleging violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, as well as state-law claims for emotional distress, false imprisonment and invasion of privacy.
Michael says he was charged in retaliation for his criticism of Chief Veasie at a town council meeting.
He and Brandy also claim police should have obtained parental consent before questioning their child at school. They claim the invalid interview undermines the search warrant and the removal of their son by Children and Youth Services.
Noting that the Parks’ “Second Amended Complaint suffers from a substantial lack of clarity,” U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani sided with the police on several issues last week.
“The court finds that it was not unreasonable for Veasie to question a second grade student as to why and how he was in possession of a marijuana pipe, and such conduct does not violate the due process rights of any plaintiff in this matter,” Mariani wrote. “The government’s interest in enforcing the law prohibiting unlawful drug use, together with the compelling need to prevent children from being exposed to unlawful drug use by their parents, outweighs any claim that parental consent must be had before a child, like Joshua, is questioned under the circumstances of this case.”
The judge added, however, that he was “troubled” officers took the Parks’ child into protective custody.
“Veasie believed that Joshua was in imminent danger, but the record does not contain any objective basis to support this contention, leaving only Veasie’s apparent subjective belief,” he wrote.
The defendants cannot get summary judgment that this action was reasonable.
Mariani did uphold the warrant, saying there was “probable cause to search the Park residence based on the fact that [their] second grade son brought a marijuana pipe to school and then proceeded to inform authorities that his parents smoke from either that bowl or ones of similar nature.”
The Scranton court granted the officers summary judgment on the Parks’ excessive-force claims as well, saying the officers took proper precautions to ensure a safe and orderly search.
But the Parks can still advance claims that the officers failed to knock and announce themselves, since there are “substantially different” versions of events. Michael can also allege that the officers decided to take custody of his son in retaliation for the speech he made to the town council. The claim that officers selectively arrested and prosecuted Michael for the same reason also can survive.
Weatherly may be liable on claims that its policies led to alleged improprieties by officers, the judge added, refusing to grant summary judgment.
All three state-law claims failed, with the court granting the defendants summary judgment.