Thursday, September 27, 2007

John v. City of El Monte (9th Cir. - Sept. 27, 2007)

This opinion, by Judge Friedman (of the Federal Circuit, sitting by designation), is the type of adjudication of which I'd definitely like to see more. On the merits, Judge Friedman reverses the denial of qualified immunity to a police officer who arrested a female teacher accused of sexually assaulting a fifth grader in her class. And I think that's right; there was probable cause here, even though the only real evidence of assault was the claim of the student herself. That's enough. Or so a reasonable officer could so believe.

Judge Friedman goes on, however, even in this very compact opinion, to display the type of compassion and recognition of real world consequences that I think is admirable. His opinion concludes:

"We do not minimize the serious effect this unfortunate incident must have had upon John. She had been a teacher for thirty years, was highly regarded and had an unblemished record. To be escorted by the police out of the school in handcuffs and confined for 36 hours must have had a devastating impact upon her and upon her professional and personal reputation.

Moreover, Youngquist appears to have acted with unseemly haste in arresting her. Had he investigated the matter further before doing so, he might not have taken that action at all. His stated reason for arresting her at that time—to prevent her from engaging in similar misconduct against other students—is unconvincing, because, in his presence, John had been placed on administrative leave when he informed the school authorities of the investigation. Indeed, John’s statement about what happened immediately before
her arrest—which we accept for summary judgment purposes —suggests that Youngquist’s arrest of her at that time may have been prompted by her stated wish to have a lawyer present during the interview.

That being said, however, the probable cause inquiry is an objective one: whether the information Youngquist had when he made the arrest could have led a reasonable officer to believe that John had committed an offense against Ashley. For the reasons given, we answer that question affirmatively."

That seems exactly right. And, although she loses the appeal, that language might well provide some -- very legitimate and potentially meaningful -- solace to the plaintiff.

Opinions aren't always entirely about getting the law right. Sometimes they're also about doing justice to the parties. And, here, I think that Judge Friedman strikes exactly the right balance.