Education Law

Officer has immunity for arresting teen for belching at school, 10th Circuit rules

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A police officer who arrested an Albuquerque middle school student for repeatedly fake burping during gym class was entitled to qualified immunity, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) in the case of a 13-year-old student, “F.M.,” whose arrest was based on New Mexico’s school disruption law, report Bloomberg View and the Albuquerque Journal. The law makes it a misdemeanor to willfully interfere with the educational process through an act to disrupt, impair or interfere with lawful school functions.

The boy’s teacher had removed him from gym class in May 2011 and sent him to the hallway after he repeatedly interrupted with fake burps. Undeterred, the boy continued to lean into the class and burp. An Albuquerque police officer assigned to the school patted down the boy, handcuffed him, and took him to a juvenile detention facility. He stayed there for an hour until his mother picked him up.

F.M.’s mother had sued school officials and the police officer for the burping arrest. A federal court dismissed the suit against all defendants, and the mother appealed the case dismissal against the officer. The 10th Circuit affirmed in a 2-1 decision.

The court majority said the officer was entitled to immunity because he could have reasonably believed he had probable cause for the arrest.

The appeals court decision also dealt with a separate suit filed on the boy’s behalf over a partial strip search for drugs, conducted at the school after a student reported seeing a drug transaction. No drugs were found, though the search did uncover a belt buckle with a marijuana leaf and a prohibited red bandanna. The court found that school officials had qualified immunity.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Schools start to rethink zero tolerance policies” “How do we fix the school-to-prison pipeline? (podcast with transcript)”

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