A civil lawsuit against a school resource officer who threw a 13-year-old student to the floor after a minor disciplinary incident has been revived by a federal appeals court—a rare denial of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that often shields police from being sued over accusations of misconduct.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, voted 2-1 to revive a civil claim for excessive force on behalf of the 7th grader at a Kissimmee, Fla., middle school. The SRO at Kissimmee Middle School in the Osceola County school district, was Mario J. Badia, who pleaded guilty to a charge of battery after the incident.
The 11th Circuit’s Aug. 22 decision in Richmond v. Badia was a relatively rare denial of qualified immunity to a school resource officer. Courts grant qualified immunity to certain government officials, including police officers, school resource officers, and educators, as long as their challenged conduct does not violate “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. As Education Week has reported, the issue has gained attention in recent years amid high-profile cases of police use of force and because of critiques from U.S. Supreme Court justices and scholars.
What happened between the SRO and student
The 2015 Florida incident involves a student who had arrived at school late one morning with his mother, and they went to the school office to check in, court papers say. The student was wearing a hoodie to conceal a haircut he didn’t like, and his mother told him to remove it because hoodies violated the school dress code. The student appeared to push his mother in response, and a front-desk assistant radioed for the resource officer.
Badia confronted the student, cursing at him and pointing his finger, court papers say. When the student would not look Badia in the eye, the SRO grabbed the student by the face. The student reacted by trying to block Badia’s arm and stepping back, and the SRO then shoved the student in the chest and used an “armbar” technique to lift him off the ground, twist him around, and slam him to the ground.
Badia released the student after about three minutes. The officer was fired and he pleaded guilty to a charge of battery. He reportedly was sentenced to probation.
The student sued Badia on claims of false arrest and excessive force. A federal district court held that Badia was entitled to qualified immunity.
In the new decision, the 11th Circuit court panel reversed the district court on the excessive-force claim, though not on the false arrest claim.
“We conclude that Badia used excessive force under the Fourth Amendment for three reasons,” Judge Andrew L. Brasher wrote for the majority.
First, the officer had no law-enforcement justification for grabbing the student’s face and slamming him to the ground, the court said, adding that a video of the incident undermined the officer’s claim that the student had been “explosive” and “aggressive.” Second, the student’s potential crime of battery on his mother was at most a misdemeanor, and the student did not pose a threat or attempt to flee the officer, the majority said, and third, the student did not disobey any lawful commands from the officer.
The student “remained passive throughout the entire encounter, never attempted to flee, never refused any lawful commands, and did not pose a threat to Badia or others,” the court said.
Brasher said it was well-established that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment if he or she uses gratuitous or excessive force on a suspect who is under control, is not resisting, and is obeying commands. Thus, Badia did not merit qualified immunity, the court said.
Writing in dissent, Judge Elizabeth L. Branch said Badia’s grabbing of the student’s face was “unnecessary” and “even degrading,” but it was a “de minimis” use of force that did not violate the Constitution.
She characterized the student as having “slapped away” the officer’s arm. The student’s “resistance allowed Badia to escalate his use of force against him,” Branch said.
“The force used against [the student] during the execution of a lawful investigation into a potential crime both before and after he hit Officer Badia’s hand away was minor, not egregious,” the dissenting judge said.