The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently heard the case of E.W. (a minor, case filed through mother T.W.) v. Rosemary Dolgos (a school resource officer) and Wicomico County Sheriff’s Department. The case involved a circumstance in which Dolgos decided to handcuff a compliant, calm elementary school child who had been fighting with another student three days prior.

The plaintiff filed a claim for excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, in addition to several violations of state law. The district court ruled the officer’s conduct did not amount to a constitutional violation and that the officer was entitled to both qualified immunity and immunity under the Maryland Tort Claims Act. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court in a decision that could be considered a reversal on its position of handcuffs in search and seizure contexts.

Case background

E.W. and another girl reportedly engaged in a fight on a school bus in January 2015. The incident resulted in both children being suspended from the bus for three days.

Later that week, the school contacted Dolgos, a deputy sheriff and the school resource officer, about the incident. After Dolgos reviewed video surveillance, E.W. was removed from class and put into an office with Dolgos and two other administrators. Dolgos believed E.W. “did not seem to care” about her actions or their seriousness. Dolgos decided to take E.W. into custody, and placed her in handcuffs. Dolgos expressed concerns of the physical safety of both herself and the administrators based on the video evidence she reviewed from the bus fight but admitted she did not know if E.W. had any past behavioral problems.

E.W. began to cry after being handcuffed, and after about two minutes Dolgos removed the handcuffs and decided not to arrest the girl. When alerted of the incident and that the matter would be referred to the Wicomico County Department of Juvenile Services, T.W. (the mother) picked up her daughter and voiced her frustration with the way the school and deputy sheriff handled the situation. Thereafter, E.W. filed suit asserting Fourth Amendment claims for unreasonable seizure and excessive force, and state law claims for assault and battery.

In the resulting suit, the district court found the plaintiff did not prove Dolgos acted with gross negligence or malice and that the deputy’s actions did not constitute excessive force. While the Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with the district court’s decision, it found that Dolgos violated E.W.’s constitutional rights, but that the right was not clearly established at the time of the conduct.

There are some who believe the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District reversed its previous stance on handcuff use in search and seizure contexts with this ruling. For more information about the precedent that existed and how this case could affect future proceedings, contact the team at Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC, at 304-344-0100 or contact us online.