Federal appellate court upholds qualified immunity for police officers who searched members of high school soccer team with coach’s consent
Lopera v. Town of Coventry, No. 09-2386 (1st Cir. Apr. 1, 2011)
Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in a 2-1 split, has ruled that police officers who searched members of a high school soccer team were entitled to qualified immunity from the team members’ claims of violation of their Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights and their Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights. In regard to the Fourth Amendment claim, the panel’s majority concluded that the team members had failed to demonstrate that the officers’ search violated clearly established law. It also found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from the state privacy law claim on the same basis. As to the equal protection claim, the majority determined that the team members had failed to demonstrate that “it is clearly established that acts that effectuate the known discriminatory intent of others, without more, violate the Equal Protection Clause.” It, likewise, concluded that the team members’ claim under the state’s racial profiling and ethnic intimidation laws failed for the same reason.
Facts/Issues: The Central Falls High School (CFHS) boys soccer team travelled to the Town of Coventry, Rhode Island for a match against Coventry High School (CHS). The CFHS players reported that during the match, CHS players directed racial slurs and epithets at them. CFHS’s team is overwhelmingly Hispanic, while CHS’s team is predominantly white. While the CFHS players made their way to the bus, a large crowd of CHS students appeared and began accusing the CFHS players of theft of cell phones and iPods. Because of the tense atmosphere, CFHS’s coach decided to search the players’ bags himself. He completed the search without finding any items the CHS students claimed were missing. The coach then spoke with CHS’s athletic director offering to allow him to conduct an independent search. The CHS athletic director declined the offer as unnecessary. By that time a crowd of 50 to 60 Coventry students and adults had gathered around CFHS’s bus and continued to accuse the players of theft and to hurl racial slurs. Three or four Coventry police cars arrived on the scene bracketing the bus. After the officers discussed the situation with the coach, he agreed to the officers’ request to conduct a search of the players. That search netted no missing items. The bus subsequently departed for CFHS.
The players filed suit in federal district court against the Town of Coventry and several police officers. They alleged violation of their rights under the Fourth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, Rhode Island’s privacy law, racial profiling and ethnic intimidation laws. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on all the claims. First, it held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the Fourth Amendment and state privacy claims because (1) it was not unreasonable for the officers to believe that the coach had power to consent to the search; and (2) coercion did not vitiate the coach consent. Second, it held that the players did not introduce sufficient evidence to support a finding that the police engaged in racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause or Rhode Island’s statutes prohibiting racial profiling and ethnic intimidation. The district court also held on independent grounds that the players had not introduced material facts to support their claims of supervisory and municipal liability. The players’ appeal to the First Circuit did not challenge the district court’s decision on supervisory and municipal liability.
Ruling/Rationale: The panel affirmed the lower court’s decision, with one judge dissenting in part on the question of whether the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity from the Fourth Amendment claim. The panel’s majority divided its analysis into two parts. It first discussed whether the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity from the players’ claims under Fourth Amendment and the state’s privacy law. The majority then delved into the question of whether the officers enjoyed immunity from the players’ federal equal protection claims and the claims based on the state’s racial profiling and ethnic intimidation laws.
Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure, State Privacy
To determine whether a defendant is entitled to qualified normally involves a steap two test: “(1) whether the facts alleged or shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) if so, whether the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the defendant’s alleged violation,” explained the majority. However, it noted that based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 808 (2009), courts are free to begin their analysis with the second question for the sake of judicial economy. In the present case, the majority decided to consider only whether the right was clearly established.
The players first argued that officers of reasonable competence would have believed that the coach did not have authority to consent on behalf of the players. Second, they argued that officers of reasonable competence would have believed that coercion vitiated the coach’s purported consent to the search in this case.
The majority disposed of the first argument, finding that in order for an officer to concluded that the coach could not consent to the search, ”an officer would have had to question [the coach's] authority to perform the first search and, by extension, [the coach's]authority to consent to a second search by the police.” While conceding that the Supreme Court’s decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), placed limits on school officials’ authority to make in loco parentis decisions for students, the majority emphasized T.L.O. did not eliminate such authority. It stated: ”The players do not identify a sufficiently particularized decision of this court or the Supreme Court that places [the coach's]consent clearly beyond his authority under the facts they allege.”
The majority also rejected the players’ suggestion that the standard applied to the voluntariness of confession, i.e., ”coercive police activity is a necessary predicate to the finding that a confession is not ‘voluntary,’” should also be applied to determine the voluntariness of consent to a search. It stated: “We are unaware of any published circuit court decision that applies this standard for voluntariness of a confession to questions of consent under the Fourth Amendment.”
The majority agreed that the coach “may have subjectively felt coerced by the police and/or the crowd to give his consent,” but stressed that the focus of the qualified immunity inquiry is, instead, “on the viewpoint of an objectively reasonable officer.” As a result, it concluded, ”We cannot say that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that Coach Marchand’s consent was valid under clearly established Supreme Court case law.” The majority found that while there was an element of coercion in the atmosphere surrounding the coach, i.e., the hostile crowd, the air of coercion was not emanating from the words or actions of the police officers. In addition, it pointed out that for purposes of a qualified immunity inquiry the police officers’ decision need not be the correct one, but a reasonable one.
In essence, the majority found that the fact that the coach was surrounded by an angry crowd expressing racial/ethnic hostility, the bus was blocked was blacked by police cars so it could not move, and the officers did not inform the coach that he was free to deny the request to search were not dispositive of the question of coercion or duress, even if the coach felt intimidated under the circumstances, because the officers themselves had not engaged in coercive or intimidating words or actions.
Equal Protection, State Racial Profiling and Ethnic Intimidation
The majority then to moved the discussion of the equal protection and the related state law claims. It stated that its analysis would look at: ”(1) whether the [the players were] treated differently than others similarly situated, and (2) whether such difference was based on an impermissible consideration, such as race.” The nutshell of the players’ argument was “that a police search that works to effectuate such discriminatory intentions voiced by a crowd violates the Equal Protection Clause.” The majority rejected that contention, noting that the players had failed to cite any cases from the First Circuit or the Supreme Court holding finding a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the absence of purposeful discrimination on the part of the relevant officials. “[T]he players have not shown that it is clearly established that acts that effectuate the known discriminatory intent of others, without more, violate the Equal Protection Clause.”
As with the question of the coerciveness surrounding the search, the majority found that the racial/ethnic hostility that permeated the crowd did not in any way influence or reflect the police officers’ motivations or actions. “There is no evidence that all officers of reasonable competence would have believed the search was undertaken because of the national origin or race of the players.” Based on that conclusion, the majority determined that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity against the players’ claims under Rhode Island’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act and Ethnic Intimidation Statute.
The dissenting judge departed from the majority’s reasoning on the question of the voluntariness of the coach’s consent to search. While agreeing with the law as set forth by the majority, the dissent took issue with how the majority applied the law to the facts. Specifically, the dissent found the majority’s perception of the facts flawed regarding the presence of coercion, which would vitiate the voluntariness of the coach’s consent. It contended that the majority placed an inordinate amount of stock in the courtesy and politeness exhibited by the police.
The dissent found that the fact that the officers had spoken and acted in a professional manner in no way obviated the hostile, intimidating atmosphere that the coach was experiencing when he had to decided whether to agree to the officers’ request. It concluded that the atmosphere vitiated the voluntariness of the consent. The dissent believed that “the officers exacerbated the situation by ‘ma[king] little to no effort to quell or disperse the crowd, even as [it] verbally assailed the players[,] shouting racist epithets and accusations of theft.’”
“It is inappropriate to create an artificial dichotomy between the coercion applied by the officers and that applied by the crowd they failed to adequately control, and then to omit the latter from consideration,” said the dissent. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the dissent believed that ”[a] reasonable officer in the defendants’ position would have known that [the coach], who expressed fear of the crowd, was under a significant amount of duress.” As a result, it would vacate the district court’s ruling that officers were entitled to qualified immunity from the player’s Fourth Amendment claim.
Lopera v. Town of Coventry, No. 09-2386 (1st Cir. Apr. 1, 2011)
[Editor's Note: When determining whether a reasonably competent offer would have concluded that the coach's consent was valid, the First Circuit panel majority discussed the difficult place in which the coach found himself. "[T]he players’ evidence depicts a difficult situation in which [the coach] faced a genuine choice between imperfect solutions. He could either consent to the search or require the police to pursue other legal paths if they wished to conduct one. . . . [The coach] may have felt that the best way for him to get his players home safely and promptly was to submit to a search. . . . A choice between undesirable options does not itself mean the choice was coerced and the consent given was involuntary.”
Indeed, this case illustrates the difficult decision school officials face when trying to balance the constitutional rights of students against the need for safety and security. While the decision is often made in the school setting by a school official subject to the more relaxed “reasonable suspicion” standard articulated by the Supreme Court in T.L.O, it still requires the official to have a command of the factual circumstance and at least general knowledge of applicable state and federal law.
For example, according to an August 2010 Dallas Morning News report in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the parent of a MacArthur High School student claimed that school officials violated his daughter’s constitutional rights when they took her cellphone and read her text messages. Officials contended that they had probable cause to search the student’s cellphone because of suspected criminal activity. They also pointed out that she voluntarily surrendered the phone. Her father, Frank Beaird, said she was ordered to do so and feared punishment. A summary of the article is available below.]