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Police Search of Visiting High School Athletes Upheld

A federal appeals court has upheld a police search of a visiting high school soccer team accused by an unruly crowd of stealing iPods and cellphones from the host school's locker room.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled 2-1 that officers who conducted the search were entitled to qualified immunity because they believed the visiting team's coach was acting in loco parentis—in the place of parents—and consented to the search on his players' behalf.

But the dissenting judge said the players from Central Falls High School in Rhode Island "were subjected to shockingly disgraceful and humiliating conduct by the police and their fellow citizens" during their Sept. 28, 2006, visit to Coventry, R.I.

Court papers contend that some members of the visiting Central Falls team used the restrooms in the home Coventry High School locker rooms, which included facilities for Coventry's football team. After the soccer match, a group of Coventry High football players accused the Central Falls athletes of stealing iPods and cell phones from the locker room.

A crowd surrounded the Central Falls team bus, shouting racial and ethnic slurs and demanding that the players be searched, court papers say. The Central Falls team was predominantly Hispanic; Coventry High is mostly white.

Central Falls coach Robert Marchand told the Coventry crowd that he would conduct a search of his players' belongings, which he did on the team's bus. Marchand did not believe his players had stolen anything, and he did not find any of the items.

The crowd wasn't satisfied by the coach's search, and, with the crowd still surrounding the bus, four Coventry police cars arrived and boxed the bus in. After a discussion, the police officers asked Marchand whether they could search his players, and he consented. The police searched each player's bag, and patted down some players, all in close proximity to the angry crowd. Again, none of the purportedly stolen iPods or cellphones turned up.

The police then escorted the Central Falls team bus through the crowd and out of town.

Marchand and his players sued the Town of Coventry and the police officers, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches, among other claims. Their suit contended that a reasonable officer would not have believed that Marchand had supervisory authority over his players and thus could consent to the search. And they claimed a reasonable officer should have realized that the coach's consent was coerced under the situation and thus not valid.

A federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and in its April 1 ruling in Lopera v. Town of Coventry, the 1st Circuit panel affirmed.

The majority said it was clear that Marchand was acting in loco parentis for his team members. While Supreme Court cases have created uncertainty about school authorities' parental authority over students in school, an out-of-town trip supervised by a coach was a much clearer in loco parentis case, the panel said.

The majority also held that Marchand was not coerced into consenting to the search and that no reasonable officer would have thought so. The court noted that the police did not command Marchand to consent.

"The players' evidence depicts a difficult situation in which Coach Marchand faced a genuine choice between imperfect solutions," says the majority opinion by Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch. "Coach Marchand may have felt that the best way for him to get his players home safely and promptly was to submit to a search."

Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, the dissenter, said Marchand was coerced into consent.

"The officers' request of Coach Marchand while he was surrounded by an angry mob and unable to depart with his players left little room for choice," Judge Thompson said. "He was subjected to coercion which, though subtler than a peremptory command and more courteous than the irate mob, could hardly be plainer. This coercion vitiated any consent he could give, rendering the subsequent search unlawful."

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