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Important Takeaways: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that when an SRO uses excessive force on a student who is not a threat, not trying to flee, and is listening to commands, the SRO is not protected from a lawsuit under qualified immunity.
Facts: A middle school student arrived to school late wearing a hoodie that his mother tried to take off of him. The student then pushed his mother away and a nearby office attendant called the Student Resource Officer (SRO), Mario Badia, to come to the area. The SRO spoke to the student for over two minutes in the lobby. During this time, he was cursing at the student, mocking him, and pointing fingers at him. Then, without warning, grabbed the student’s face, shoved him in the chest, and threw him to the ground using an armbar technique. The SRO pinned the student for three minutes and pushed him in the back as he walked away. The SRO pleaded guilty to the crime of battery after the incident.
The student filed suit against the SRO for false arrest, excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and battery under Florida State Law. The district court granted the SRO summary judgment and said he had arguable probable cause to arrest the student for pushing his mother and therefore had qualified immunity as to the false arrest and excessive force claims and statutory immunity for the battery claims.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals explained that qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would have known. For qualified immunity to apply, the SRO would have had to show he was acting within his discretionary authority when the wrongful acts occurred. If the SRO was able to show this, the student would have had to show that the SRO’s conduct violated a constitutional right, and the right was clearly established at the time of the wrongful conduct.
The Court held that the SRO was acting within his discretionary authority at the time of the incident since he was working as an SRO and responding to calls regarding possible criminal activity. The Court determined that the false arrest and excessive use of force claim would have to be analyzed independently. The SRO did have arguable probable cause to arrest the student for battery for pushing his mother so the SRO is protected under qualified immunity from the false arrest claim.
In determining whether there was excessive use of force, the court looks at the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. The Court found that the SRO did use excessive force. The SRO had no law enforcement justification for grabbing the student, slamming him to the ground, or twisting his arm. The student also did not pose a threat and was not attempting to flee and did not refuse to obey any lawful commands.
What this means: SROs may be protected from some civil liability when acting within the discretion of their position but may not be protected from liability when using excessive force. Qualified immunity does not apply when the SRO had no legal reason for their actions and the SRO can be sued for such conduct.
What is the name of the case and where you can read it: Richmond v. Badia, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 22, 2022. Read it here.
As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, and Kevin by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.