Monday, March 4, 2013

Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools[1]

Opinion handed down March 4, 2013

Mellony and Douglas Burlison, on behalf of their son, C.M., filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Article I, Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution, alleging that Springfield Public Schools (the “District”) along with school and law enforcement officials violated C.M.'s constitutional rights by searching and seizing his backpack during a drug dog visit to C.M.’s school.[2]  The Burlisons sought a permanent injunction, actual and nominal damages, attorney fees, and other relief.[3]  The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that the policies used during the drug dog exercise were reasonable and not a deprivation of any federal rights.[4]  On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.[5]

I.  Facts & Holding

In April 2010, when C.M was a freshman at Springfield’s Central High School, two deputies from the Greene County Sheriff’s Department conducted a brief survey of randomly-selected areas with two drug dogs.[6]  C.M.’s classroom was selected.[7]  After the students and teacher left the room, leaving their personal belongings inside, one of the deputies entered the classroom with a drug dog and remained inside for five minutes.[8]  The dog did not signal any drugs were present.[9]  Both the deputy who searched the room with the dog and school district personnel maintained that no personal possessions were searched in the classroom, but C.M. insisted that his backpack had been unzipped and searched.[10]

The drug dog visit was conducted in accordance with the sheriff’s department’s policy, which authorizes random exploratory sniffing of containers in public facilities.[11]  It was also executed in accordance with the Board of Education’s policy and school police services’ standard operating procedure, both of which were enacted to balance students’ privacy rights with the need to promote an environment conducive to learning.[12]  Using animals trained to locate prohibited weapons and drugs is expressly permitted by these procedures and policies.[13]  In this instance, the District contacted the Sheriff’s Department and requested searches throughout the 2009 to 2010 school year in order to address a known drug problem.[14]  The District also created procedures for said visits, and followed them in this instance.[15]

The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that C.M.'s belongings had not been seized, and the “written policies and procedures . . . appear to be reasonable and not in any way a deprivation of a federal right.”[16]  Even though there may have been a search, the superintendent, principal, and sherriff were not liable in their individual capacities because they did not physically conduct the alleged search.[17]  The claims against the superintendent and principal in their official capacities were dismissed because they were redundant to the claims against the District, and the sheriff was not liable in his official capacity because he had no notice.[18] 

On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the Burlisons claimed the District Court erred in concluding there was no seizure, the superintendent and principal were not liable in their official capacities, and the sheriff was not liable in his individual or official capacities.[19]  However, they did not pursue their claim that an unconstitutional search of C.M.'s bag occurred because the proper parties were not named.[20]  They also did not appeal the District Court's determination that the superintendent and principal were not liable in their individual capacities.[21]  The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court, holding that even if a seizure occurred, it was reasonable.[22]

II.  Legal Background

A. Summary Judgment for the District and Ridder and Snodgrass in Their Official Capacities

The Court of Appeals determined that the Burlisons' claims against the superintendent and principal in their official capacities were, in reality, claims against the District pursuant to Johnson v. Outboard Marine Corporation.[23]  Next the Court applied Van Zee v. Hanson holding that in order to succeed on their § 1983 claim against the District, the Burlisons must prove that the District acted under color of state law in a manner that deprived C.M. of a constitutionally protected federal right.[24] 

The Burlisons also raised a state constitutional claim under Article I, Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution, which is essentially the same as a Fourth Amendment claim under the federal constitution.[25]  The Fourth Amendment requires that seizure of property be reasonable, but pursuant to New Jersey v. T.L.O., reasonableness depends on the context.[26]  Because the State is responsible for maintaining discipline, health, and safety at public schools, a student's privacy interest is limited according to Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls.[27]  Students retain Fourth Amendment rights at school, but those rights are different in public schools.[28] 

The Supreme Court balances “the intrusion on the children's Fourth Amendment rights against the promotion of legitimate governmental interests” when determining whether a school’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment.[29]  In Earls, the Supreme Court considered the nature of the privacy interest compromised, the character of the intrusion, the immediacy of the government's concerns, and the value of the policy.[30]  As such, the Court of Appeals held that C.M.'s freedoms were not unreasonably impinged by his brief separation from his book bag because he normally would not have been able to access or move it during class time without permission.  The District showed an immediate need for the drug dog inspections by offering substantial evidence of the drug problems within the District.[31]

B. Summary Judgment for Sherriff Arnott in his Individual and Legal Capacities

As a government official, the sheriff could be held liable in his individual capacity if the Burlisons could show he had direct responsibility for the deprivation of C.M.’s rights.[32]  Pursuant to Parrish v. Ball, a supervising officer can be liable for an inferior officer's constitutional violation “only if he directly participated in the constitutional violation, or if his failure to train or supervise the offending actor caused the deprivation."[33]  To succeed on a claim against the sheriff in his official capacity, the Burlisons must have shown that "a constitutional violation was committed pursuant to an official ‘policy or custom’ and that such ‘policy [or] custom’ was the moving force behind plaintiff's injury.”[34] 

Because the drug dog survey itself was conducted pursuant to established procedures, there was no constitutional deprivation and there was no evidence that the sheriff failed to train or supervise the deputies who conducted the drug dog procedure at C.M.’s school.[35] Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the District Court correctly concluded that the sheriff was not liable in his individual or official capacity.[36]  The sheriff did not participate in the drug dog event at C.M.’s school.[37] The sheriff knew about the request to conduct the exercises, but he assigned the matter to a captain.[38] 

III.  Comment

The intrusion, if any, on C.M.’s rights is clearly outweighed by a legitimate and immediate interest of the government.  Ensuring academic integrity and maintaining an environment suitable for learning is one of the school’s most important roles.  The alleged seizure lasted only five minutes in duration, did not deprive C.M. of access to his property because he would otherwise have needed his teacher’s permission anyway, and it was in response to a known drug problem.  As such, it was reasonable for the Court to hold that the drug dog policies and procedures that were followed were reasonable. 

- Joe Palumbo

[1]  No. 12-1382 (8th Cir. Mar. 4, 2013).  The West reporter citation is Burlison v. Springfield Pub. Sch., 708 F.3d 1034 (8th Cir. 2013).
[2]  Id. at 1.
[3]  Id.
[4]  Id.
[5]  Id. at 2.
[6]  Id.
[7]  Id.
[8]  Id.
[9]  Id.
[10]  Id.
[11]  Id. at 3.
[12]  Id.
[13]  Id.
[14]  Id
[15]  Id.
[16]  Id. at 4.
[17]  Id. at 5.
[18]  Id.
[19]  Id.
[20]  Id.
[21]  Id.
[22]  Id. at 7.
[23]  Id. at 5 (discussing 172 F.3d 531, 535 (8th Cir. 1999)).
[24]  Id. (discussing 630 F.3d 1126, 1128 (8th Cir. 2011)).
[25]  Id. at 5-6.
[26]  Id. at 6 (discussing 469 U.S. 325, 337 (1985)).
[27]  Id. (citing 536 U.S. 822, 830 (2002)).
[28]  Id. (citing Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 652 (1995)).
[29]  Id. (citing Earls, 536 U.S. at 830.)
[30]  Id. at 7 (discussing Earls, 536 U.S. at 830, 832, 834).
[31]  Id. at 8.
[32]  Id. at 10.
[33]  Id. (citing 594 F.3d 993, 1001 (8th Cir. 2010)).
[34]  Id. (citing M.Y. v. Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, 544 F.3d 885, 890 (8th Cir. 2008)).
[35]  Id.
[36]  Id.
[37]  Id.
[38]  Id. at 11.