Law & Courts

Court Restores Officers’ Immunity Over Seizure of High School Athletes in Peeping Probe

By Mark Walsh — May 11, 2021 4 min read
Image of cellphones.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated qualified immunity for two university police officers who had directed a coach to detain a group of high school football players attending a camp at a Missouri college amid an investigation into whether one or more players had peeped on the dorm room of a female cheerleading coach.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, voted 2-1 to reverse a federal district court’s decision that had denied immunity to the officers and allowed two of the football players to pursue their claim that the detention violated the Fourth Amendment’s bar against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The case stems from a 2016 summer high school football camp at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo. At the same time, the university hosted a summer camp for high school cheerleaders, and the participants resided in nearby dormitories.

A female cheerleading coach reported that she had seen people observing her through a window of her dorm room, and possibly taking photos, while she undressed, court papers say. Officers Clarence Green and Anthony Williams of the university police department investigated and found that a dorm room assigned to seven football camp participants had a view into the cheerleading coach’s room.

Court papers say the officers instructed the football camp coach to gather the students in a room for investigation. The coach, acting on his perceived orders from the law enforcement officers, questioned the students, asked to see the pictures on their cellphones, and kept them detained for hours, court papers say. Apparently no snooping photos were found. When none of the seven players confessed to any snooping, they were expelled from the football camp.

Two of the football players, identified as T.R.H. and H.R.J., sued the officers, alleging that their coach confined them at the officers’ direction and that the seizure violated the Fourth Amendment.

A federal district court denied the officers’ request to dismiss the suit based on qualified immunity, which protects police officers and other government officials from personal liability as long as their conduct does not violate “clearly established” rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

The officers appealed, and in its May 11 decision in T.R.H. v. Green, the 8th Circuit court panel reinstated qualified immunity to the officers.

The appeals court majority assumed for the opinion that the football players’ coach was acting at the behest of the officers and that the players’ detention was a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The question then became whether it was reasonable.

The court said it has not been established in the 8th Circuit whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., which applied a standard of reasonable suspicion (rather than the higher standard of probable cause) to a school official’s search of a student’s purse for contraband, also applies to seizures by school officials or school police officers.

“Given the state of the law, a reasonable officer could have proceeded on the understanding that a student seizure is permissible if it is reasonable under the standard of T.L.O.,” U.S. Circuit Judge Steven M. Colloton wrote for the majority. “Although the alleged seizure in this case did not occur at the high school and was initiated by law enforcement, reasonable officers could have believed that probable cause was not required.”

The majority treated the university police officers essentially the same as school resource officers and noted that the 8th Circuit has ruled recently that in at least one context an SRO does not need probable cause to summon a student to the school office for an interrogation.

The Northwest Missouri State campus officers were justified in ordering the seizure based on a belief that either a violation of Missouri’s invasion of privacy law had occurred or there was a possible violation of Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education, the court said.

“In sum, it was reasonable for Officers Green and Williams to believe that a seizure of high school students by a high school coach acting at the behest of the officers was permissible if reasonable,” Colloton said. “It was also reasonable for the officers to believe that the seizure was justified under that standard. The officers thus did not violate the students’ clearly established rights under the Fourth Amendment, so they are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, writing in dissent, said the seizure of the students was not justified at its inception, as required under the Supreme Court’s T.L.O. decision. The cheerleading coach did not make her complaint until she was checking out of the dorm, Kelly said.

“From this, it is reasonable to infer that the cheer camp had ended, that there was no risk of students engaging in future similar conduct, and thus, that there was no special need to restore order or safety,” Kelly added.

Further, she said, it was not reasonable for the officers to believe that hours of detention of the students was reasonable “considering the absence of a security threat and the lack of any apparent disruption to the camps or to the students’ learning environment.”

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