Overview: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Sonora police officers were entitled to qualified immunity from claims alleging unlawful arrest and use of excessive force on an “out-of-control” juvenile. School officials had called police to assist with an unresponsive minor, 11, who had not taken his medication for ADHD. Concerned that he would run from the parking lot onto a busy roadway because the student had a history of running into traffic, police handcuffed the youth and took him into temporary custody. California Welfare & Institutions Code §625(a) authorizes officers to take minors into custody when they are “beyond the control” of their “parents, guardian, or custodian” as defined in Section 601(a). But no established law informed officers whether school officials qualified as “custodians” in this setting. Under these circumstances, a reasonable officer would not know that handcuffing an unstable “runner” and taking him into temporary custody was unlawful. Because there was no violation of a clearly-established right, the officers’ conduct was entitled to qualified immunity. This case illustrates an ambiguity in the Welfare & Institutions Code as to whether school officials are considered “custodians” under Section 601(a). The court specifically noted that California courts had not squarely addressed the issue. The court did not make a determination on its own, but simply found that the law was not clearly established, which means that the ambiguity remains.
Training Points: Based on this ruling, qualified immunity should still be available to officers who take custody of a minor from school officials under Sections 601(a) and 625(a). If contacted by school officials under similar circumstances, officers should document in detail all aspects of the encounter and take all reasonable steps in having a parent or guardian involved without delay. If the parent or guardian is not available, then the officer can transport the minor from the school. Until the legislature acts to resolve the ambiguity, or the California Supreme Court weighs in, law enforcement will have to be cautious in this area of juvenile enforcement.
Summary Analysis: In C.B. v. City of Sonora, C.B., 11, was having a “rough day” after not taking his ADHD medication before school. The disciplinarian for Sonora Elementary School told C.B. that she would call the police if he did not come in from the playground and return to class. C.B. had a history of “just taking off” and recently admitted that he wanted to “go out into traffic and kill himself.” Finding C.B. unresponsive, an officer put him in handcuffs and took him to his uncle’s workplace. C.B. claimed that police used excessive force and unlawfully arrested him in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1983. The court disagreed, finding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. At the time of C.B.’s arrest, the law was unclear as to whether school officials qualified as “custodians” under the statute authorizing officers to take custody of “out-of-control” minors. Thus, the officers did not violate the minor’s Fourth Amendment rights when they handcuffed C.B. and took him into temporary custody.