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Student's Questioning Violated Fourth Amendment, Court Rules

A school resource officer violated the rights of an 8-year-old student when he detained the youth and intimidated him into crying, all to coax a confession from another student who was the real suspect in the theft of a dollar bill, the state's highest court has ruled.

The Delaware Supreme Court held that the student was "seized" under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that the officer lacked immunity for his actions. The 3-0 ruling by a panel of the court also reinstated state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment against the officer, the state, and the Cape Henlopen school district.

(The five-member state supreme court assigns some of its cases to three-judge panels.)

The case involves a day in January 2008 when a Delaware State Trooper David Pritchett, who served as an SRO at a high school, visited Shields Elementary School for a talk about bullying, court papers say. The next day, Pritchett returned to the school, and the principal asked him to question a 5th grader identified as "AB," who was suspected of stealing a dollar from an autistic student on a schoolbus.

AB said he had the dollar, but he told the officer that another student on the bus was the one who had taken it from the autistic student, court papers say. Pritchett went to get that student, Anthony J. Hunt, and bring him to the same room where he was interrogating AB.

Testimony in the case showed that while walking back to that room, the officer told Hunt that he didn't really suspect him of stealing the dollar, but he needed him to come into the room and "be brave" while the officer questioned him about it in front of AB. Pritchett did just that, questioning Hunt harshly and threatening to send him to jail, all meant to coax AB to fully confess to the theft.

The tactic worked, as Hunt verged on tears and AB confessed. Pritchett told Hunt he did "a great job," testimony showed. Hunt's mother was none too pleased over the officer's treatment of her son. She sued over the alleged Fourth Amendment violation and the state-law claims. A lower court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

In its June 25 decision in Hunt v. Delaware, the state supreme court panel first held that Pritchett's detention of Hunt amounted to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

"Pritchett was in uniform, carrying a gun, handcuffs, and other indicia of police authority," the court said. "Pritchett then met with AB and Hunt in the reading lab for close to one hour. For some period of time, the door to the reading lab was closed. Hunt was 8 years old. Pritchett never told Hunt that he could leave the reading lab, and Pritchett admitted that he did not expect Hunt to leave. Based on these facts, a reasonable child would not believe he was free to leave the room."

The court went on to say that the seizure of Hunt was unreasonable.

"If Pritchett knew that Hunt had nothing to do with the incident, his reason for questioning Hunt becomes suspect," the court said. "One could reasonably infer that Pritchett brought Hunt to the reading lab not to find out whether Hunt was involved in the theft, but to use Hunt to elicit AB's confession. ... When Pritchett achieved his goal, by getting Hunt to start crying, Pritchett shamed AB into confessing. These facts would support a finding that Pritchett's seizure was unreasonable."

The court further held that Pritchett violated Hunt's "clearly established" right to be free of an unreasonable seizure, and thus was not entitled to immunity from the suit.

The state supreme court returned the case to a trial court for further proceedings.

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