The Delaware Supreme Court has largely reversed a 2012 Superior Court judgement in favor of a school resource officer who questioned an 8-year-old child.
The Supreme Court found sufficient evidence that the officer violated the Shields Elementary student's civil rights to reverse the lower court's summary judgement in favor of the officer. The decision sends the case back to Superior Court for further action.
Superior Court Judge William Witham in 2012 ruled in favor of several state entities named in a lawsuit filed by the boy and his mother who claimed he was falsely imprisoned and suffered emotional distress among other things.
The boy, who was 8 years old at the time of the 2008 incident, was taken to a room by Delaware State Trooper David Pritchett, who was questioning another boy about a theft incident. Pritchett told the 8-year-old that he was not in trouble, and that the trooper believed the other boy took a dollar from an autistic child while on a school bus, according to the Supreme Court decision filed June 25.
Pritchett told the 8-year-old to "be brave and come in here" and "when I tell the story of what's happened and I look at you, you just say no, you didn't do it …," according to court records.
However, when the 8-year-old entered the room, he said in court documents, that Pritchett used a "mean voice" and told the boys how bad children go to the Stevenson House, a youth detention facility in Milford.
"Pritchett said that if (8-year-old) were sent to the Stevenson House, his siblings would be upset and would not be able to see him," court records state.
At that point, court records state the 8-year-old started to cry, and Pritchett was able to get the other boy to admit he took the dollar.
Following the incident, the 8-year-old's mother pulled him out of school and homeschooled him for the rest of the year. In 2012, she filed a lawsuit against the Cape Henlopen School District, Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland, Delaware State Police and Trooper David Pritchett. Cape Henlopen School District settled the case with the mother; Superintendent Robert Fulton had no further information on the settlement before the Cape Gazette's deadline.
The mother could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Noel Primos of Schmittinger and Rodriguez in Dover, also could not be reached for comment.
After settling with the district, the boy's mother in April 2013 appealed a Superior Court decision granting summary judgement to the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland, Delaware State Police and Trooper David Pritchett.
In the Supreme Court appeal, the boy's mother claims her son endured emotional distress, battery, false imprisonment and his civil rights were violated during his meeting with the student resource officer.
The Supreme Court found that all the claims except for a battery claim should go back to Superior Court.
"Pritchett should have known that it was unreasonable to seize (the boy) and intentionally frighten him, in order to teach another student a lesson," wrote Justice Carolyn Berger in the court's decision.
Furthermore, she writes, Pritchett's interrogation of the boy violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches or seizures.
"Pritchett was in uniform, carrying a gun, handcuffs and other indicia of police authority," court records state. "Pritchett never told (the boy) that he could leave the reading lab, and Pritchett admitted that he did not expect (the boy) to leave. Based on these facts, a reasonable child would not believe he was free to leave the room."
Cape Henlopen School District no longer has student resource officers in district schools. However, in response to the attack on a school in Newtown, Conn., the school board in April discussed bringing back an SRO for the school district with the possibility of adding a second officer.
Fulton said he believes the recent Supreme Court decision does not "have any bearing on the discussion to bring back SROs to the district."