Saying that it “sends a very discouraging message to minority youth in the state,” the RI ACLU today criticized a 2-1 decision issued on Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals, rejecting the appeal by a group of Central Falls High School students who were subjected to a controversial search by Coventry Police after a school soccer game in 2006. Over the vigorous dissent of Judge Rogeriee Thompson, the majority ruled that the police could have reasonably believed that the search did not violate the students’ constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Rhode Island ACLU had filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the students’ appeal.

Leaving the field after a soccer match with Coventry High School, the Central Falls High School boys’ soccer team, which was virtually all Latino, was followed by an angry crowd accusing them in loud, sometimes racially tinged, tones of stealing iPods and cell phones from the boy’s locker room, even though a security guard had been present while they were in there. Shortly thereafter, four police cars officers and cruisers arrived, boxing in the team’s school bus to prevent it from leaving. Although the team’s coach advised the police that he had personally checked the students and their belongings, the officers asked the coach for permission to search the Central Falls players themselves, and he reluctantly agreed after expressing fear about the large crowd standing only feet away from the bus. Each player then was ordered off the bus with their bags and lined up facing the shouting mob. The officers searched the bags of every player, and asked some of them to empty their pockets, lift up their shirts, and stretch open their pants. In addition, having no description of the missing devices, when the officers found a cell phone or iPod they would display it to the angry crowd to see if anyone recognized it. None of the stolen items was found.

The lawsuit argued that the search violated the students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures and their right to equal protection of the laws. Without deciding the merits of the claims, the majority held that the police were entitled to “qualified immunity” from suit because they did not violate clearly established law in concluding that the coach’s consent to have the students searched was voluntarily made. However, Judge Thompson, the circuit court’s only African-American judge, issued a strongly-worded dissent. In challenging the majority’s ruling, she stated:

“The officers knew that [Central Falls coach Robert] Marchand felt threatened by the crowd. They knew he had already capitulated to the intense coercion and intimidation exerted by the mob, delaying his team's departure for about a half-hour to engage in a search that he knew beforehand  would  be  futile  in  order  to  satisfy  the  crowd's  demands.  Still,  the  officers  did practically nothing to assuage that fear or mitigate the coercion, and indeed kept the players' bus trapped with the crowd for more than ten minutes before capitalizing on Marchand's weakened state to elicit consent for a duplicative search. Without a doubt, such behavior is contrary to the general recognition that police officers have a duty to protect the public and public safety.

“A reasonable officer in the defendants' position would have known that Marchand, who expressed fear of the crowd, was under a significant amount of duress. This duress was caused both by the raucous mob hurling menacing accusations, threats, and racial epithets and the officers themselves, who blocked Marchand's team in with the crowd, failed to take adequate measures to calm or disperse it, and immediately took its side against Marchand upon arriving, despite lacking any reasoned basis for doing so. Given the officers' exchange with Marchand, they knew or at least should have objectively known, that he felt constrained by their failure to disperse the crowd or allow the bus to leave and that he feared the racial animus in the crowd aimed at his players. On these facts, a reasonable officer would have known that Marchand believed he had no option for getting his students home safely but to consent to their demand for a search.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “The court’s decision sends a very disturbing message to young people, and particularly to our minority youth. The students in this case were subjected to racial taunts, the threat of a mob and a humiliating and public search by police. To have the courthouse door shut in their face, as this ruling does, is disheartening, to say the least.”

Brown noted the irony of the court ruling’s conclusion that acknowledged the “ethnic animosity from Coventry inhabitants” that the students faced, but offered as recourse that “the Town and its voters may wish to take steps to prevent recurrence of such behavior.” Brown said,  “The  students  understandably,  if  wrongly,  placed  their  faith  in  the  court,  not  the townspeople who were responsible for this disturbing incident, to vindicate their rights.”