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Police Restraint of 9-Year-Old Student Was Not Excessive Force, Court Rules

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This post, by Mark Walsh, is cross posted from the School Law Blog.

A federal appeals court has upheld the police use of a restraining hold on a 9-year-old student suspected of stealing an iPad from his school, though two judges called the police officer's actions "regrettable" and a third judge lamented police tactics in schools by asking, "Why are we arresting 9-year-old schoolchildren?"

The boy identified in court papers as C.G.H. was suspected of stealing an iPad from his elementary school in Sandy City, Utah. He brought the iPad home, where his grandmother realized it probably did not belong to him and demanded that he return it in school, the court documents say. 

The boy was apparently in the act of returning the iPad the next day, when the school principal saw him with it and took it away. C.G.H. did not react well to this, and a struggle ensued between him and three school employees. The boy attempted to hit, bite, and head-butt the employees, court papers say. The school employees had to hold the boy by his torso and legs.

Other school employees got on the phone, calling C.G.H.'s grandmother (who was his guardian), as well as the police. The grandmother arrived first, calming the boy down enough so that the school employees could release their hold. 

C.G.H. was sitting on the floor of a school hallway, leaning against a wall, when Youth Officer Tina Maria Albrand arrived, not knowing that the boy had just been involved in the physical altercation with school employees.

Informed that the school wanted to file theft charges, Albrand allegedly said to C.G.H.: "We can do this the easy way by you talking to me, or we can do this the difficult way or hard way by you not talking to me."

When the boy was unresponsive, Albrand grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet, court papers say. In response, C.G.H. grabbed the officer's arm and may have grabbed for her gun. Albrand then imposed a "twist-lock," a control technique in which the officer twists the suspect's hand to get him to comply, and pushed him against the wall and handcuffed him. "You're hurting me," the boy said.

C.G.H. was issued a citation for the alleged theft of the iPad, and his grandmother then took him to the hospital, where he was treated for a possible hairline fracture of his collarbone.

The boy and his family sued Sandy City and Albrand, alleging that the use of the twist-lock was excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (There is no information in the court papers about any outcome of juvenile or school disciplinary proceedings against C.G.H.)

A federal district judge granted summary judgment to the city and the officer, ruling that it was critical that Albrand had only used the twist-lock maneuver after C.G.H. had grabbed her arm.

In its Dec. 5 decision in Hawker v. Sandy City Corporation, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously upheld the district court. 

The appeals court weighed whether Albrand's use of the twist-lock was objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances she confronted. The panel concluded that it was.

While the alleged crime at issue was "a relatively minor offense," the court said, "Albrand could objectively and reasonably view C.G.H.'s grabbing her arm as resisting arrest and escalating a tense situation. For safety, it was objectively reasonable for Albrand to de-escalate the situation and command C.G.H.'s compliance by using a twist-lock."

The court said it was "regrettable that a police officer feels a need to resort to physical force, handcuffs, and arrest in order to gain control of and reason with a 9-year-old child."

But "equally regrettable is the disrespectful, obdurate, and combative behavior of that 9-year-old child," the court added. "In any event, given C.G.H.'s resistance, Albrand's actions in this case simply do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation."

U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos F. Lucero, in a concurrence, agreed with his two colleagues on the panel that precedents required summary judgment for the city and the officer. But he asked,"Why are we arresting 9-year-old schoolchildren?"

"I would like to believe that C.G.H.'s experience is uncommon, particularly for such a young child," Lucero wrote. "Those who monitor the conditions of our schools, however, tell us otherwise. Police presence in educational settings, including elementary schools, is pervasive."

He cited reports detailing the "school-to-prison pipeline" and he questioned whether "elementary schoolchildren of a tender age need to be manhandled into a criminal law system in which they are treated as if they were hardened criminals and with a lack of finesse."

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