A police officer who questionably arrested a high school student on "terrorizing" charges cannot be sued in connection with the incident, a federal court recently ruled. But the decision making that official—along with a fiery dissenting opinion—shows how some facets of criminal justice reform do not have to be partisan.
In February 2018, Lennon Betancourt, a student at Grace King High School in Metairie, Louisiana, was pictured next to a cartoon caricature of himself labeled "Future School Shooter." Though there was perhaps cause for alarm at first glance, the benign circumstances behind the photo became clear shortly thereafter: Betancourt's health teacher, Guy Farber, had been teaching a lesson about school shootings and said that the "typical" culprit was a "white male." Betancourt was the only one in class who fit that bill, culminating in a crass but harmless exchange where students jested that he should spare them from any violent spree. A peer drew the picture, and Betancourt posed with it, while Farber played along with the joke.
When it came to the attention of Sergeant Billy Matranga, a school resource officer, he handcuffed Betancourt, brought him to the police station, and put him in a holding cell before questioning him about the picture. Matranga learned about the less-than-seedy details—including, for instance, that Betancourt also hadn't been the one to post the photo on social media—which were corroborated by another student. Yet he still moved forward with formally arresting Betancourt under Louisiana's "terrorizing" statute, a charge that carries up to 15 years in prison.
Betancourt was transferred to a juvenile detention center where he spent the night and was fitted with an electronic monitoring device. Though the charges were dropped a month later, he was expelled from school.
Despite the strange turn of events leading to Betancourt's arrest, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit awarded Matranga qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects local and state government employees from facing civil suits for rights-violations if a plaintiff cannot pinpoint a closely-aligned court precedent that says the misbehavior in question is unconstitutional. It's the same reason why two police officers in Fresno, California, could not be sued after they allegedly stole $225,000 during the execution of a search warrant. Without a ruling explicitly explaining that theft under those circumstances is wrong, the plaintiffs were out of luck.
Here we see a similar level of granularity from the majority at the 5th Circuit—along with a blistering dissent from a judge who is most known for his ultra-conservativism.
"Here, we conclude that Sergeant Matranga is entitled to qualified immunity because his actions did not violate 'clearly established' law," wrote the majority. "Betancourt argues that Sergeant Matranga had no evidence of criminal intent and therefore lacked probable cause. But even so, the court cannot conclude that every reasonable officer with that information would so conclude."
Not everyone agrees. That includes Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump and grabbed headlines with his hardline stance against rulings in favor of LGBT people. Debates in the criminal justice sphere are often polarized along partisan lines, and mind-numbingly so. Duncan's response to the majority—composed of a Ronald Reagan appointee and a Barack Obama appointee—reminds us that it need not be that way.
"Lennon's arrest was based on an obviously satiric photo (1) that Lennon didn't take, (2) that Lennon didn't post online, and (3) that grew out of a classroom prank Lennon's own teacher was in on," wrote Duncan. "Matranga knew all that—and yet he arrested Lennon, clapped him in jail, and misled the district attorney….Qualified immunity does not protect the officer who orchestrated this outrageous clown show."
At the heart of Duncan's dissent is Louisiana's "terrorizing" statute, which requires the defendant intentionally sent out information that spurred on a violent crime that is "imminent or in progress." But, as Duncan notes, the details of the case should have disabused Matranga of that almost immediately. The "facts dissolved any notion that Lennon had committed terrorizing," concludes Duncan. "No reasonable officer would have concluded there was probable cause to arrest Lennon for terrorizing or for any other crime."
Betancourt's case is likely dead in the water, meaning Matranga will evade civil court. But if Duncan's response is good for something, it's the reminder that giving victims recourse when agents of the state violate their rights is not an issue reserved for any particular party.