Scott v. City of Albuquerque

Case Citation: Scott v. City of Albuquerque, 711 Fed. Appx. 871 (10th Cir. 2017)

Where a special education middle school student, who had permission to leave the classroom if he was anxious or distracted, was arrested for skipping class, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity in a 1983 Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest claim because even though the officer lacked probable cause to arrest, there was no clearly established law at that time that would have given the officer notice that the arrest was unlawful.



Fact Background:

Quentin Scott, a then-thirteen-year-old boy with various behavioral disorders, had been given permission by his teachers to leave class when he needed to. He did so on one occasion in January 2009; but as he was walking through the school, he was arrested by the school police officer, Damon Hensley (who thought Scott was skipping class). Scott was kept in painfully tight handcuffs through an hour-long meeting, during which he was interrogated and mocked by Officer Hensley. The officer then took Scott—still in handcuffs—to a juvenile detention center, where he was booked and charged with violating a New Mexico statute that makes it a crime to “willfully interfere with the educational process” at a public school.

Procedural Background:

Plaintiff Quentin Scott sued Officer Hensley, Chief Ray Schultz, and the City of Albuquerque alleging 1983 statute claims. Scott sought partial summary judgement on his first count against Officer Hensley, which asserts violations of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgement on all claims in favor of the defendants on the basis of qualified immunity. Plaintiff appealed.


In an opinion by Judge Jerome A. Holmes, the Tenth Circuit of Appeals AFFIRMED the district court’s decision holding that the arrest was unconstitutional, because nothing could possibly have given the officer probable cause to think Scott was intending to create any interference—he had simply been on his way to quietly sit in the janitor’s office. The opinion states, “and since a warrantless arrest without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment, Scott has shown that Officer Hensley violated Scott’s right to be free from unlawful arrest.” But the court still gave the officer qualified immunity, on the ground that the meaning of the statute was not clearly established at the time of the offense. Although there was ample state law defining the term “willfully” to mean “conscious or intentional,” there was no state supreme court decision interpreting “willfully” in the context of this specific statute. The Panel argues, “Scott has not identified any clearly-established law that would have given Officer Hensley ‘fair notice that his conduct would be unlawful in the circumstances he confronted.’” In essence, because there existed no exact, en point precedent deciding the constitutionality of the exact actions taken by Officer Hensley in January of 2009, Officer Hensley is entitled to qualified immunity from all damages and further suit.

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