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Appeals Court Rejects Police Handcuffing of Elementary Student

A federal appeals court has upheld most of a jury verdict against two police officers and the city of Sonora, Calif., in the handcuffing and transport of an 11-year-old student who was unresponsive to a school official at recess.

An en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 7-4 that the two officers did not have qualified immunity over handcuffing the student identified as C.B., who had failed to take his medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on what the student later called a "rough day."

"It is beyond dispute that handcuffing a small, calm child who is surrounded by numerous adults, who complies with all of the officers' instructions, and who is, by an officer's own account, unlikely to flee, was completely unnecessary and excessively intrusive," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Paez wrote for the majority.

However, a different 7-4 lineup of the court ruled that the officers who responded to a call from school officials were entitled to immunity over a claim that their seizure of C.B. on the playground violated the boy's Fourth Amendment rights. 

The case stems from a day in the fall of 2008 at Sonora Elementary School. A physical education teacher who was the school's disciplinarian became concerned that C.B., based on past experiences, might run away from school or 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 go inside. When he continued to be unresponsive, the Sonora police were called.

The officers who responded to a report of an "out of control" juvenile believed C.B. was passively resisting them. They handcuffed the student behind his back and transported him in a police car into the care of his guardian.

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. (He also sued the Sonora school district and the "disciplinarian," who settled for an undisclosed amount.)

The federal jury 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 the jury form were inconsistent, and the jurors were sent back for further deliberations, and they then ruled for C.B.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court ruled unanimously last September that the defendants should be given a new trial. But the full 24-member 9th Circuit court stepped in and granted an en banc rehearing, which in that circuit is done before an 11-member panel of judges.

In its Oct. 15 decision in C.B. v. City of Sonora, the larger appeals court panel unanimously upheld the jury instructions in the case. But the court splintered on the issues of whether the officers merited immunity on the excessive force and seizure claims.

Writing for the majority that found against the officers on the excessive force claim, Judge Paez said the officers' "use of handcuffs on a calm, compliant, but nonresponsive 11-year-old child was unreasonable."

"During the entire incident, C.B. never did anything that suggested he might run away or that he otherwise posed a safety threat," Paez said. "He weighed about 80 pounds and was approximately 4'8'' tall—by no means a large child. Moreover, he was surrounded by four or five adults at all times."

On the court's finding of immunity for the officers on the seizure issue, U.S. Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote for the second majority that the officers who arrived at the school were told by school officials that C.B. had been "out of control" and that he was a potential "runner." 

"Under all the circumstances, a reasonable officer would not have understood that taking C.B. into temporary custody violated his rights," Judge Smith said.

The jury had awarded $285,000 in damages to C.B. from the officers and city. The 9th Circuit court ordered that award reduced by $20,000 because of the ruling for the officers on immunity over the seizure.

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