Education

Student’s Questioning Violated Fourth Amendment, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — July 03, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP