Home Assault and Battery Appeals Court: No Immunity For School Cop Who Assaulted A Student Over Perceived Disrespect

Appeals Court: No Immunity For School Cop Who Assaulted A Student Over Perceived Disrespect

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from the contempt-of-(school)-cop-is-not-a-crime-worthy-of-this-response dept

Putting cops in schools is still a bad idea. It turns regular disciplinary problems — ones handled for decades by administrators, teachers, and parents — into police matters, subjecting students to the whims of armed officers who have been trained to react with violence to nearly any misbehavior.

That’s what happened in this case [PDF] handled by the Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court. A momentary altercation between a student and his mother prompted a school employee to call for the school resource officer, who then went on to brutalize the student for, apparently, not immediately respecting his authority.

Here’s how it all began:

One morning, Trellus Richmond arrived late to middle school with his mother. Like many thirteen-year-olds, he was concerned with his appearance—so much so that he was violating school rules by wearing a hoodie to hide an embarrassing haircut. When his mother told him to take it off, he resisted; his mother pulled at the hoodie, which led him to push her away. That skirmish prompted the front office attendant to radio the school resource officer, Mario Badia, who arrived moments later.

And here’s how Officer Badia mishandled a situation that really didn’t require his presence, much less his, shall we say… interaction.

When Badia arrived, he spoke briefly to the front desk assistant and Richmond’s mother. By this time, Richmond’s hoodie was gone, and he was standing alone at the front desk. For about two minutes, Badia confronted Richmond by cursing at him, mocking him, and pointing his finger at him. Richmond did not look directly at Badia while he was talking, so Badia grabbed the thirteen-year-old student’s face. Richmond reacted to the hand coming at his face by trying to block it with his arm and stepping backwards. Badia then shoved Richmond in the chest and grabbed his shirt and arm. Badia pushed Richmond to the center of the lobby and used an “armbar” technique to lift Richmond off his feet, flip him onto his back, and slam him to the ground.

Badia held Richmond down by his forearm, twisting his wrist as he was on the floor. After about three minutes, Badia released Richmond, allowing him to return to his feet. Badia then pushed him to the front desk and told Richmond to “remember him.” Badia asked Richmond’s mother if she wanted to press charges against her son for battery, but she declined.

This was all captured on video by the school’s cameras. The student was never charged for a crime but Officer Badia sure was:

Badia was investigated, terminated, and prosecuted for child abuse and battery. The arrest warrant charged Badia with grabbing, shoving, and slamming Richmond to the ground “for no apparent lawful reason.” Badia ultimately pleaded guilty to battery…

Somehow, despite Badia being charged (and pleading guilty) for throwing Richmond to the ground “for no apparent lawful reason,” the district court awarded the officer qualified immunity on Richmond’s false arrest and excessive force claims. It also granted Badia statutory immunity on the state law battery claim… you know, the charge Badia pled guilty to.

Badia still gets qualified immunity on the false arrest claim.

Uncontroverted testimony establishes that Badia arrived at the scene after two school employees informed him that there had been a physical confrontation between Richmond and his mother. But a reasonable officer in the same circumstances as Badia and having received reports of a fight could have believed that there was probable cause to arrest Richmond at the time. See Fla. Stat. § 784.03(1)(a) (battery occurs when a person “[a]ctually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other” or “[i]ntentionally causes bodily harm to another person”). We therefore conclude that Badia had arguable probable cause to arrest Richmond for battery and is entitled to qualified immunity on the false arrest claim.

The charges brought against Badia by prosecutors should have made it clear he could not be awarded immunity on the excessive force claims. “For no apparent lawful reason,” reiterates the Appeals Court.

Badia had no law enforcement justification for grabbing Richmond’s face, slamming him to the ground, or twisting his arm. Badia testified that he slammed Richmond to the ground because, after he grabbed Richmond’s face, Richmond “became explosive, he became aggressive . . . when I went to grab him, he kept pulling away.” In other words, Badia testified that he threw Richmond to the ground because Richmond resisted Badia’s attempts to grab his face. But Badia does not identify any law enforcement justification for grabbing Richmond’s face in the first place or for the other things he did to Richmond, such as twisting his wrist while he was lying on the ground or pushing him in the back after Badia allowed Richmond to stand. And, having viewed the video and taking all disputed facts in favor of Richmond, we cannot agree that Richmond was “explosive” or “aggressive”—he was simply stepping backwards, away from Badia’s grasping hands.

Officer Badia’s next move: “But I was probably trying to arrest a student.” So what, says the court. Even if true, none of the violence Badia perpetrated on the student was in service of performing an arrest.

Here, notwithstanding his probable cause to do so, Badia was not using force to effectuate an arrest. Indeed, Badia does not even argue that grabbing Richmond’s face was related to effectuating a lawful arrest. Instead, Badia testified that he grabbed Richmond’s face to “direct [Richmond’s] gaze toward him” while they were speaking. Accordingly, on this record, Badia identifies no legitimate law enforcement justification for his use of force.

And, the court continues, fully expanding on Badia’s argument that an arrest was afoot, plenty of other stuff was wrong with how this was handled. The supposed crime was a misdemeanor, so only a minimum of force was called for since the student was obviously not a truly dangerous criminal suspect. The student did not disobey any “lawful commands” issued by the officer. Instead, he stood still at the desk for two minutes listening to the officer curse at him and mock him before Badia went on the offensive.

The Appeals Court says a jury could likely find Badia’s use of force to be a violation of rights. So could a court, like this one. And Badia should have known his assault of a student violated his rights because there’s plenty of precedent saying exactly that.

In terms of related precedent (most of it related to handcuffed subjects), the court says this:

Here, Richmond was under control, not resisting, and obeying commands when Badia used force. Indeed, Badia confirms that during their two-minute conversation, Richmond “just stood there.” And Richmond was obviously restrained when he was on the floor, but Badia torqued his wrist, nonetheless.

But, on top of that, it was an obvious violation of rights.

For the obvious clarity standard to be met, an officer’s conduct must be of a nature that every reasonable officer would have known the conduct was unlawful.

[…]

We recognized in Patel that it is obviously unreasonable for officers to use the same high degree of force on a physically weak non-resisting suspect that they might justifiably use to restrain a physically strong suspect who is resisting. Like Patel, who was frail and elderly, Richmond was a thirteen-year-old boy and significantly smaller than Badia. Nevertheless, Badia used an armbar technique to forcefully throw Richmond to the ground. Our precedents establish that the unconstitutionality of Badia’s conduct— taking all inferences in favor of Richmond, as we must—was obviously clear.

Badia can’t have immunity on the federal claims related to his assault of the student. And that means he can’t have immunity on the state law claims related to the same act. Reversed and remanded. Presumably, a settlement will be headed to the student’s family in the near future, since it’s obviously clear a rights violation took place. Plus, there’s a recording of the incident, which leaves far fewer facts in the “disputed” state where Badia might find some other way to escape this lawsuit.

Some people complain there’s never a cop around when you need them. But this complaint, which is sustained, says the opposite: schools are ensuring cops are around when you don’t need them. When faced with incidents that don’t call for their specific set of skills, some officers, like this one, will become instigators and aggressors. And when that happens in schools, it’s children and legal minors who are expected to simply take the abuse.

Filed Under: 11th circuit, battery, mario badia, police in schools, qualified immunity, sro



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