The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in A.M. v. Holmes on Monday, July 26, 2016.
In May 2011, F.M. was a student at Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque when his teacher radioed a request for assistance over her school-issued radio because F.M. was burping loudly in class and disrupting the other students. Officer Acosta, an Albuquerque police officer who was assigned to the school, answered the teacher’s radioed call for help. When Officer Acosta approached the classroom, he saw F.M. sitting on the floor in the hallway while the teacher stood in the classroom doorway. The teacher informed Officer Acosta that F.M. had interrupted class by burping loudly, and even when she ejected him from the room, he continued to lean into the class and burp, making the other students laugh and stopping the teacher from continuing her planned lessons. Officer Acosta escorted F.M. to the office, where he arrested F.M. under N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-20-13(D), which provides that interfering with the educational process is a petty misdemeanor offense. Officer Acosta informed the principal, Ms. LaBarge, of his intent to arrest F.M., and Ms. LaBarge attempted to contact F.M.’s mother and also prepared a slip for a one-day suspension of F.M. Officer Acosta then transported F.M. to a juvenile detention facility, where he was picked up by his mother. F.M. did not argue with Officer Acosta and was rated a -2 out of 10 on the detention center’s risk assessment. F.M. did not return to Cleveland Middle School for the rest of the year. A.M. spoke publicly about F.M.’s arrest, and there was a good deal of publicity about the incident.
The following year, A.M., F.M.’s mother, re-enrolled him at Cleveland. On November 8, 2011, a student approached a teacher to report witnessing a drug transaction. Officer Acosta retrieved the school’s surveillance videos and, with Ms. LaBarge and an assistance principal, identified the five students involved in the transaction. F.M. was identified as one of the students. All of the students were searched individually in a conference room next to Ms. LaBarge’s office with several adults presents. All of the searches except F.M.’s were audio recorded.
None of the students had drugs on them, but F.M. had $200 cash. He relayed to the adults present that the cash was a birthday present. The assistant principal asked F.M. if he had anything he was not supposed to have, and he said he had a belt buckle in his bag with a marijuana leaf imprint. A search of his backpack revealed the belt buckle and a red bandanna, among other things. F.M. was wearing several layers of clothing, which he removed at the request of the school officials. A male teacher flipped down the waistband of F.M.’s athletic shorts, which revealed a pair of boxers underneath. The teacher did not touch F.M.’s boxers. During the search, A.M. contacted the school and was informed of the events of the morning. A.M. confirmed that F.M. had left the house carrying $200 in cash that morning. F.M. received a three-day suspension for the bandanna and belt buckle because they violated the school’s policies against “gang-related” clothing and “inappropriate messages or symbols.” Later that day, A.M. met with Ms. LaBarge, but according to Ms. LaBarge, A.M. “stormed out” of the office and said her attorney would contact the school.
A.M. sued Officer Acosta, Ms. LaBarge, and the assistant principal in state court, alleging Fourth Amendment violations relating to the May 2011 and November 2011 incidents. A.M. objected to F.M.’s handcuffing in May 2011, opining that a reasonable officer should have known that burping was not a crime and no force was necessary to effectuate an arrest of the compliant child. A.M. also alleged that Ms. LaBarge’s strip search of F.M. in November 2011 was unreasonable. Defendants removed the action to federal court and moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity. The district court granted summary judgment to Ms. LaBarge, agreeing that she was entitled to qualified immunity. While the claims were still pending, A.M. filed another state court lawsuit against the assistant principal, alleging Fourth and First Amendment violations related to the strip search and retaliation for A.M.’s speaking to the media. The assistant principal removed the action to district court and argued collateral estoppel. The court granted summary judgment to the assistant principal. The district court also granted summary judgment to Officer Acosta, finding qualified immunity applicable. A.M. appealed.
The Tenth Circuit addressed A.M.’s claims regarding Officer Acosta first. A.M. contended that the district court sua sponte granted qualified immunity to Officer Acosta, but the Tenth Circuit noted that A.M. devoted most of her reply brief to the issue of qualified immunity and therefore was on notice that the defense had been raised. A.M. also contended she was deprived of the opportunity to present evidence of injuries F.M. suffered by being handcuffed, but the Circuit noted that in Officer Acosta’s response brief, he noted that any injury suffered would have been de minimus, therefore affording A.M. a chance to respond.
The Tenth Circuit next addressed the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to Officer Acosta on the claim that he arrested F.M. without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the New Mexico statute in question and found that Officer Acosta had arguable probable cause to arrest F.M. under the statute banning interference with the educational process. A.M. argued that burping in class did not rise to the level of seriousness contemplated by the statute, and F.M. was at worst being a class clown, conduct that “would have subjected generations of school boys to an after-school detention, writing lines, or a call to his parents.” The Tenth Circuit rejected A.M.’s contentions and determined that the broad language of the statute seemed to encompass F.M.’s conduct. The Tenth Circuit found that A.M. could not carry her burden regarding clearly established law, since the statute appeared to condemn F.M.’s conduct. The Tenth Circuit found that Officer Acosta possessed reasonable probable cause when he arrested F.M. Likewise, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court’s reasoning that A.M. had not shown that Officer Acosta committed a constitutional violation when he arrested F.M. The district court determined that A.M. failed to present evidence of an actual physical or psychological injury.
The Tenth Circuit next turned to A.M.’s claims against the assistant principal. The district court found that the assistant principal was entitled to qualified immunity on A.M.’s First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims, and the Tenth Circuit agreed. Because the November 2011 search of F.M. was arguably justified at its inception, the assistant principal did not violate the Fourth Amendment by beginning the search of F.M. Likewise, because the search continued to be reasonable in its scope, it was within the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. The Tenth Circuit also dismissed A.M.’s claim that the assistant principal executed the search in retaliation for A.M.’s protected First Amendment activity, referring to its first finding that the search was reasonable at its inception and throughout its duration. A.M. also alleged a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection violation because the assistant principal searched F.M. more extensively than the other four students. The Tenth Circuit found that A.M. failed to set forth a legally cognizable Fourteenth Amendment claim because F.M. was not similarly situated to the other students.
Finally, A.M. argued the district court committed reversible error by granting qualified immunity to Ms. LaBarge on A.M.’s unreasonable search claim. A.M. incorporated her arguments against the assistant principal into the brief on Ms. LaBarge’s claim, and the Tenth Circuit decided to follow its previous reasoning in rejecting A.M.’s position.
The Tenth Circuit upheld the grants of qualified immunity as to all three defendants. Judge Gorsuch wrote a compelling dissent; he would have followed a previous New Mexico opinion that limited the statute in question to behavior much more serious than burping in class.