By Jeff Birren, Senior Writer
In 2016, high school football players attended a summer camp at a university campus. They stayed in a dormitory and received on-field instruction. The university had a concurrent high school cheerleading camp, and those participants were in a neighboring dormitory. During the camps, a female cheerleading coach believed that she had seen people in a nearby window “observing her” and possibly photographing her while she undressed in her dorm room. She reported it and university police investigated. Ultimately seven players were dismissed from the camp. Two of the players subsequently sued members of the university’s police department alleging various federal claims, including unreasonable search and seizure. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The District Court denied the motion and the defendants appealed. The Eighth Circuit recently reversed the District Court in a 2-1 opinion, (T.S.H. v. Green, Case No. 19320, 2021 U.S. App, LEXIS 13828, W.L. 1878155 (5-11-21)).
The camp was held in June 2016 at Northwest Missouri University. The participants were supervised by their high school coach and received on-field instruction by university coaches. The school also hosted a cheerleading camp and they stayed in a “neighboring dormitory.” A female cheerleading coach reported to resident assistants that she “had seen people in a nearby window, and possibly photographing her, while she undressed in a dormitory room.” That was forwarded to University Police. Clarence Green, head of campus police, and Officer Anthony Williams, investigated the incident (Id. at 5).
They “inferred” that the window in question belonged to one of two dormitory rooms that were assigned to seven football camp participants. The officers filed an “offense report” that included the students’ names. According to the Complaint, Williams “directed their high school coach to gather the seven players in a room and hold them there for ‘interrogation’ about the incident.” The coach, “acting at the officers’ direction” and “in submission to” the officers’ perceived authority, brought the players into a room and “told them they were being investigated.” The coach “kept the players in the room ‘for a period of hours’” to question them.
He asked to see the photographs on their cell phones, and this was done, in “submission” to the officers’ “perceived authority.” No one confessed, and the players “were expelled from the camp.” Two of the participants, identified by their initials” “T.S.H.” and “H.R.J.”, sued Officers Green and Williams in federal court. They claimed that the defendants violated their rights “against unreasonable searches under the Fourthand Fourteenth Amendments.” They asserted that they were subjected to an unlawful seizure because their coach “confined” them at the officers’ direction. They further alleged that the officers “denied them certain statutory rights to due process and privacy that are accorded to juveniles in federal delinquency proceedings.” They also claimed that the officers “conspired to violate their civil rights” (Id. at 6).
The defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint “based on qualified immunity.” The District Court denied the motion, holding that the Complaint “adequately alleged violations of clearly established constitutional rights” and that “qualified immunity could not be established ‘on the face of the complaint.’” The defendants appealed. The Circuit had “jurisdiction to consider their interlocutory appeal addressing purely legal issues.”
II. The Circuit’s Analysis
The Court began by stating that state actors are entitled to “qualified immunity from suits under 42 U.S.C. §1983”unless “(1) they violated a federal or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time.” The critical question is “whether the official acted reasonably in the particular circumstances that he or she faced.” The denial of a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity is reviewed de novo. The court must “accept as true all of the complaint’s factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.”
The Fourth Amendment Claim
The defendants argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim. The first question was whether the defendants “seized” the students. The Complaint alleged that the officers “instructed” the coach to confine the students in a room and question them. The Court assumed “for the sake of analysis” that “the coach was acting as an agent of the officers” and because the students claimed that they “submitted to the officers’ authority, we will also assume that they were seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
The defendants asserted that “any seizure was reasonable, or at least they believed that was the case.” The Eighth Circuit had previously “observed” that “in the public-school context, children have a diminished expectation of privacy, and this expectation becomes even more diminished” in “extracurricular activities and athletics” (Id. at 7). A school official does not need “probable cause to search a student” but legality is based “on the “reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” Although the law is not settled in this area, the defendants “could have proceeded on the understanding” that the test was based on reasonableness. Moreover, “searches conducted by school police or school liaison officers have been evaluated under a reasonableness standard.” The majority determined that “a reasonable officer could have believed that the seizure was reasonable.”
The plaintiffs responded by stating that the officers treated the incident as a “possible Title IX incident” but because “the cheerleading coach was neither a student nor an employee of the University” Title IX was not implicated. The Court thought otherwise. “Title IX also protects third parties from sexual harassment …in a school’s education programs and activities” (Id. at 8). This same rationale also applied to the breach of Missouri privacy claim, as “reasonable officers could have believed that the cheerleading coach’s report gave reasonable grounds to suspect that questioning the student would turn up evidence about invading the privacy” of that coach.
The “seizure” must also have been reasonable “in scope.” Other courts had “found student seizures of similar durations to be reasonable.” The plaintiffs “identify no authority for placing a more precise limitation on the duration for the seizure” and the Court concluded that “the students had not clearly established right to be free from a seizure” for that time period. Consequently, “it was reasonable” for the officers “to believe” that a seizure of high school students by their coach, at the officers’ request, was reasonable and thus they were “entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.”
The Statutory Claims
The plaintiffs made claims under 18 U.S.C. §5033,that provides “specific due process rightsfor juveniles who have been ‘seized’ in connection with a criminal investigation” and “that the officers violated their ‘right to privacy’ by disclosing certain information in violation of18 U.S.C.§5038.” The statutes “at issue concern juvenile delinquency proceedings under federal law.” However, those statutes “are not applicable here” as the students “were not charged with federal crime” and thus the defendants were “entitled to dismissal on these claims” (Id. at 9).
Conspiracy to Violate Civil Rights
This “plaintiff must show that the defendant conspired with others to deprive him of a constitutional right.” If a defendant believed he was acting lawfully as an individual, “then he could also believe that he was acting lawfully by working with a colleague to the same end.” The officers believed this and thus “they violated no clearly established constitutional right by acting in concert” and were therefore entitled to qualified immunity on this claim. The dissenting opinion agreed with the majority that the statutory claims should have been dismissed but stated that the Fourth Amendment and civil conspiracy claims should not have been dismissed.
The Court remanded the case to the District Court with instructions to dismiss all claims. Teen-based movie comedies have long celebrated this sort of dorm-room behavior. Although boys may be boys, they need to know that certain behavior can lead to unpleasant consequences and the courts may not be a path compensation.