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Appeals Court to Hear Case of Handcuffed Student

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This is a cross post from the School Law blog.

A federal appeals court will re-examine a case in which an 11-year-old California student who was having a "rough day" and was refusing to respond to school officials was removed from school grounds in handcuffs by the police.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, said Monday that a larger "en banc" panel of judges will look at the case of the Sonora, Calif., student identified as C.B. The action in C.B. v. City of Sonora sets up a potentially important ruling on interactions between the police and students in school.

In the fall of 2008, C.B. was taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had a so-called Section 504 plan under the Rehabiliation Act of 1973. Court papers say he failed to take his medications at the beginning of what he called a "rough day" that included being sent to the school office. After a brief "cool down" period, C.B. was supposed to return to class, but instead he was found on the school playground, where he refused to talk to anyone.

A physical education teacher who was the school's disciplinarian became concerned that C.B., based on some past experiences, might run away from school or run into traffic, and she sought to coax him back into the building. She said she would have to call the police if C.B. didn't come back inside. The teacher testified that C.B. said, "Call the police." The student disputed that at trial.

Three Sonora police officers arrived in response to the school's report of "an out of control juvenile." The physical education teacher whispered to them, "Runner. No medicine." C.B. remained unresponsive to the officers' efforts to communicate with him. One officer concluded that the student was passively resisting them, and C.B. was handcuffed. The police contacted the student's guardian, an uncle, to come pick him up, but the uncle said he couldn't leave his business during the day. The police transported C.B., still handcuffed, in a squad car to the uncle's workplace, where they released him into the uncle's custody without incident.

C.B. filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Sonora police department and two of the responding officers, alleging excessive force and unlawful seizure. (The suit apparently initially included the Sonora school district and the "disciplinarian" as defendants. The school defendants settled their part of the suit, the panel decision indicates.) 

The case was tried before a federal jury, which initially returned a verdict in favor of the defendant city and police officers. But the trial judge concluded that the jury's answers to questions on what appears to have been a complex jury form were inconsistent, and the jurors were sent back for further deliberations.

After multiple colloquies with the judge, and more deliberation, the jury came back with a decision for C.B. 

The city and the officers appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court ruled unanimously last September that the defendants should be given a new trial. The verdict form was "problematic," the court said, and the trial judge's statements to the jury after the initial verdict may have "unwittingly" steered it away from finding for the defendants in the end.

The panel split 2-1 for the idea that the police officers had qualified immunity from personal liability in the case.

"No clearly established law suggests that handcuffing a juvenile when lawfully taking him into temporary custody violates the juvenile's Fourth Amendment rights, absent a showing that the handcuffs caused injury or that the officer ignored complaints about the handcuffs, neither of which C.B. alleged in this case," the panel majority said.

The dissenting judge said the initial seizure of C.B. was justified at its inception based on the information the officers had. "But once they discovered that C.B. was simply sitting silently on a schoolyard bench, they could no longer rely solely on the school official's unexplained allegation that C.B. was beyond control and her request to remove C.B. from school, any continued detention of C.B. was" unreasonable, the dissent said.

On Monday, the full 9th Circuit court said in a brief order that it would rehear the case. (Such en banc rehearings in the 9th Circuit are conducted by a larger panel of 11 judges, not the full court.) The panel decision was vacated. There was no indication whether the rehearing was meant to look more at the disputed interactions between the judge and jury or at the qualified immunity question.

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