HONOLULU (CN) — A federal judge ruled Friday that Honolulu police officers can't rely on qualified immunity to duck a lawsuit brought by an elementary school student who was arrested for drawing an image threatening a fellow student.
According to the initial complaint filed on behalf of the student and her mother by the ACLU in January 2022, the girl — who was 10 years old at the time of her arrest — had been involved in a squabble with a classmate, leading her and her friends to later draw a cartoon about the incident.
Police were called to Honowai Elementary School the next day, after school staff were alerted to the cartoon by a concerned parent. The girl, identified as N.B. in the lawsuit, was then arrested, detained, and questioned alone by Honolulu police officers named in the suit. They released the child after four hours in police custody and did not charge her with any crimes.
N.B. and her mother Tamara Taylor accuse the officers of false arrest and excessive force, as well as race and disability discrimination claims since the girl has ADHD and was the only Black student involved in the drawing’s creation. The suit also names the Honowai Elementary vice principal who called the police at the behest of the parent who insisted the girl was dangerous.
U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor on Friday dismissed the family's claims of inadequate training, negligent training, negligent supervision and Americans with Disability Act claims against the city and county of Honolulu and the state Department of Education. She found the government defendants cannot be held liable for claims regarding the insufficiency of the police officers' training since the plaintiffs did not point to any specific policies or training procedures that might have been deficient.
As for the ADA claim, Gillmor found there was no reasonable way that officers could have known the child had a disability at the moment of the arrest.
“The allegations in the second amended complaint are that N.B. was calm, compliant, and did not act in a way that would have caused the defendant police officers to have specific concerns regarding a potential disability,” Gillmor wrote. “There are no allegations that she showed signs of attention deficit. There are no allegations that she displayed signs of hyperactivity or that she acted irrationally, erratically, or in a manner that would cause the defendant officers to believe she was disabled.”
But despite the city attorney pushing hard for the dismissal of claims against the defendant police officers in a December hearing, insisting that the officers were acting under risk of terroristic threatening, Gillmor declined and found no probable cause for the child’s warrantless arrest over a "simplistic cartoon-style picture by elementary age students” that officers should reasonably not have considered terroristic.
The drawing at the center of the issue has yet to be produced during any of the case’s proceedings, despite attempts by the city to make it publicly available. Gillmor ruled it will remain under seal until issues surrounding the authorship and chain of custody can be resolved.
Only descriptions of the image have been offered to the public, including from a November 2021 Honolulu Police Department letter stating it would not be reviewing any of its policies or procedures for handling incidents involving minors. The department characterized the image as a “graphic depiction” of a figure holding a gun with a severed head at its feet, accompanied by threatening phrases, including, “Stand down B**th”, “Yo F**kin days are over NOW”, and “Fake to me and DED!”
The department also denied there were any racially motivated reasons for the girl’s arrest and maintained that the officers had acted in compliance with department procedures.
The girl and her mother, who have since left the islands, can amend their complaint. They are represented by Honolulu attorney Mateo Caballero and Hawaii ACLU attorney Jongwook Kim.
Gillmor scheduled trial for February 2024.
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