Appeals Court Backs Police Officer in Mental Evaluation of Suicidal Student

By Mark Walsh — May 18, 2020 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has held that a Michigan school police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a 7th grader when she took the student for a mental evaluation—over the student’s father’s objections—after the girl told her principal she had been having suicidal thoughts for a month.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that the officer merited qualified immunity and summary judgment in a lawsuit brought over the 2016 incident at Baseline Middle School in the South Haven, Mich., school district.

According to court papers, in October 2016 a student identified as T.R. sought out a counselor whom she had spoken to in the past, but when that counselor was not available, the student met with the principal. T.R. said she had been thinking about suicide for the previous month, and that she saw guns and knives at home that made her want to hurt herself.

The principal called Shawn Olney, a city of South Haven police officer assigned to the school. Olney called the student’s father at work and said she was taking T.R. to the hospital for a mental evaluation. The father objected, and asked the officer to wait about 90 minutes until he could get to the school and take his daughter home.

Olney took T.R. to the hospital anyway. An emergency room nurse concluded that T.R. needed treatment, and a doctor ordered a blood draw as a standard part of a full mental evaluation. T.R.'s blood tested negative for any drugs.

The father arrived at the hospital, and after considerable back and forth with medical personnel, he was allowed to take T.R. as long as he agreed to take the girl to a nearby mental health facility. The father did that, and he took the girl home after a 45-minute visit, court papers say.

The father sued Olney among other defendants (though apparently not the school district or other school officials) alleging that the police officer violated both his daughter’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and his 14th Amendment due-process right to make medical decisions about his daughter.

A federal district court denied the officer’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that she was not entitled to qualified immunity from the suit.

In its May 14 decision in Machan v. Olney, the 6th Circuit reversed the lower court.

“Here, Olney heard that T.R. herself came to [the principal] to say that she had been thinking about suicide, that T.R. had been having suicidal thoughts for about a month, and that she worried about hurting herself with the guns and kitchen knives in her home,” the appeals court said.

The facts involving the student having suicidal thoughts for a month and being concerned about guns and knives at home “provided Olney with ample grounds to think that T.R. posed a danger to herself, and thus provided probable cause for Olney to take T.R. into protective custody for a mental evaluation,” the court said.

The court rejected the father’s arguments that the officer should have waited for him to arrive at the school.

“Olney had reason to fear that T.R. might hurt herself at home, given that T.R. herself had just said that ‘she sees things’ there (i.e., guns and knives) that made ‘her want to hurt herself,’” the court said. “Moreover, seizures by definition are not consensual; and the existence of probable cause meant that Olney did not need [the father’s] consent to take T.R. to the hospital for a mental evaluation. Olney therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment when she took T.R. to the hospital and authorized the blood draw.”

The appeals court said the father had failed to identify any case law which would have made Olney think she was acting unlawfully in the situation, and thus the officer was entitled to qualified immunity. The appellate panel ordered the district court to enter judgment in favor of Olney.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.