Most people would think twice before they used handcuffs on a child. They would hesitate to use them on an eight-year old. They would never think of applying them above the child’s elbows. Yet last month a federal appeals court in Kentucky held that the parents of schoolchildren could not sue an official for doing exactly that.
The case concerned two students and one school resource officer. The principal called the officer when each child was ‘out of control’, but by the time he arrived each had calmed down. But when the first student, an eight-year old in third grade, swung his elbow at the officer’s face, he pinned the boy’s arms back and applied the cuffs. In later incidents he put handcuffs on the second student, a nine-year old in fourth grade, when she tried to kick and hit him.
The officer’s authority to act as he did was mixed. On the one hand, Kentucky prohibited schools’ own employees from using ‘mechanical restraints’ on their students. On the other, the resource officer had been trained and sent by the county sheriff, whose officers had the power to use restraint and had already used handcuffs on eight students a year.
On these facts the court in Kentucky had no trouble finding the handcuffing had gone too far. According to a decision from the United States Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment stops officials from unreasonably seizing schoolchildren of any age. To stay within this limit officials must have a valid reason to begin a seizure and, once they start, must stay within reasonable bounds. This test the officer did not pass. Both children were young. Both weighed less than sixty pounds. The boy had cried out in pain. The officer never charged either one with a crime. Experts for both sides testified they had never heard of anyone handcuffing children above their elbows
Yet the decision to hold the officer liable turned on the question of whether he should have known better. As a general rule, agents like him of the public cannot be sued for how they perform their official duties. Public policy says they must have leeway in how they do their jobs. Yet they cannot hide behind their title. They cannot knowingly violate citizens’ rights. If they do not know the limits of the Constitution, they cannot knowingly break them. If the law has fairly warned them of what is reasonable, they cannot claim they did not know they were violating the Fourth Amendment.
The appeals court found that the law at that time and place had not clearly warned this officer. No Supreme court ruling had plainly warned him about the constitutional limits on handcuffing. Neither had any decision on the subject in that federal circuit. It did find such warning in decisions about handcuffs from federal courts, in California and Alabama. But the Kentucky court would not hold this officer responsible for knowing about the law in other parts of the country.
In the end the school resource officer escaped liability for his violations. After this decision, neither he nor anyone else in that circuit will be able to claim they unaware of handcuffing and the Fourth Amendment. Ironically, the court did hold the county sheriff liable for having trained his officer to break the law.