“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Eighth Circuit Judge David Stras voted to reverse a district court decision and to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity a complaint by a high school student that she was improperly seized by a police-school official and required during final exams to submit to an in-school police interrogation, which did not concern any misconduct by her, causing mental and emotional distress. The March 2021 decision is in LG v Columbia Public Schools.
LG was a sixteen year-old Missouri high school student, who suffers from anxiety disorder and other psychological and emotional issues “for which she is treated by counselors both within and out” of school, as explained in the district court decision in the case. Towards the end of a semester, while she was in the middle of a final math exam, LG was summoned to the main office because police wanted to question her about an alleged sexual assault at the home of another student who had the same first name as her. She was allowed to finish the final she was taking, but went to the office during a short break before a class where she was to have finished a final accounting project and then taken another final exam. The police had no warrant and there were no exigent circumstances.
When she got to the office, LG was told by police school resource officer Keisha Edwards that several police officers were there to question her. Edwards took LG “to a room for the interrogation,” told an assistant principal he was not needed, left LG in the room, and “closed the door behind her.” No effort was made to notify LG’s mother or counselor about the situation.
The interrogation lasted twenty minutes, during which LG became “increasingly distraught” and “started to shake” as the officers continued to press her for information that she did not have. The officers then told LG she could leave.
Immediately after that, LG called her mother “in near panic.” Her mother immediately drove to the school and she and LG talked with LG’s counselor, who was also “very surprised” by what had happened to LG. They also talked to other school officials, although no satisfactory resolution was reached. LG’s accounting project and other final had to be postponed until after the end of the semester; she “performed poorly” on her final projects and her “mental health has deteriorated further.”
LG and her mother learned that what happened to her violated school district policy, which requires that school officials first seek to notify parents when law enforcement officers seek to question a student during the school day and that the principal or other official be present during questioning. Nevertheless, as LG’s mother contended in the court complaint she filed on behalf of LG, the district has a “regular practice” of working with police to “seize students at school” without a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion and for the police to “interrogate such students” without notifying parents or allowing them to be present. The complaint sued the school district, the city, and Edwards and the other two police officers who interrogated LG, seeking damages as well as an injunction against the district’s practice.
Assuming the truth of the acts alleged in the complaint, Edwards nonetheless moved to dismiss it, contending that she was protected from any accountability by qualified immunity as a police-school official. While agreeing to dismiss some other claims against Edwards and other defendants, veteran district court judge Nanette K. Laughrey rejected Edwards’ motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds before even any discovery had taken place. Judge Laughrey explained that a “reasonable factfinder” could determine that Edwards had violated LG’s “constitutional right against unwarranted seizure” by using her authority to effectively require LG to submit to the police interrogation, “leaving LG alone with the officers” after closing the door behind her. Based on past precedent, including cases involving students seized and interrogated at school, Judge Laughery also found that LG’s constitutional right against such seizure was “clearly established” at the time of the incident. Edwards appealed to the Eighth Circuit.
Trump judge Stras was part of a three-judge panel that reversed the district court and ruled that the complaint against Edwards should be dismissed based on qualified immunity. Stras and his colleagues maintained that Edwards had a “nominal role” in what happened to LG, and that some of the cases relied on by the district court were not specific to the school context, The appellate panel also claimed that the school-specific cases relied on by Judge Laughery consisted only of a “single circuit” court ruling and a ”handful of lower courts,” and that this “lineup of authorities” was “insufficient to establish a robust consensus” that LG’s constitutional right was “clearly established” in order to overcome Edwards’ qualified immunity.
In fact, Judge Laughery had clearly explained that Edwards’ role in what happened to LG was much more than “nominal.” The district court explained that according to the complaint, it was Edwards who had “directed her out of her class room,” then “led LG into the room with the two other officers,” made no effort to notify her mother, told an assistant principal he was not needed, and “left her there, after closing the door.” Judge Laughery explained that according to the complaint, “[i]n short,” it was Edwards who “seized LG.” As the appellate panel itself stated, the “facts as alleged in the complaint” should be accepted “as true” at such an early stage of the case, but the panel instead relied on its own characterization of what happened
In addition, Judge Laughery clearly relied on more than a single appellate decision and a “handful” of district courts in concluding that LG has a “well established” right not to be seized for police questioning at school without a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion. Not only did Laughery cite more than a half dozen district court cases and a court of appeals decision, but the judge also quoted one court as stating that “[s]everal other circuits” agree with this principle.
Nevertheless, the Eighth Circuit panel including Trump Judge Stras reversed, and deprived LG and her mother of any opportunity to try to hold Edwards accountable for her unconstitutional conduct. The case is yet another example of Trump judges helping expand the reach of qualified immunity and making police and other government officials less accountable for their misconduct.