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9th Circuit Rejects Qualified Immunity for Honolulu Cops Who Handcuffed 10-Year-Old Girl

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Handcuffs and a ballpoint pen on an arrest warrant. | Mykhailo Polenok |

A federal appeals court ruled that three Honolulu police officers are not immune from a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 10-year-old girl who was handcuffed and arrested at school for allegedly drawing an offensive and violent picture of another student.

In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from civil suits in cases where the rights they allegedly violated were not clearly established by prior case law. The doctrine protects a wide variety of abusive officials from legal consequences and makes it harder for victims to hold them accountable.

Citing previous rulings holding that handcuffing a complaint child surrounded by adults constituted excessive force, the 9th Circuit wrote, “no reasonable official could have believed that the level of force employed against ten-year-old N.B. as alleged in Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint—namely, placing her in adult handcuffs to transport her to the police station—was necessary.”

In 2020, school officials at Honowai Elementary called Tamara Taylor, the mother of the 10-year-old girl, who is identified as N.B. in the lawsuit, because another parent demanded that the school report her daughter to the police. N.B. had allegedly participated in drawing an offensive sketch of a student in response to that student bullying her.

Reason reported in 2021:

After she arrived at the elementary school, Taylor says police detained her in a room and did not allow her to leave. Meanwhile, officers interrogated her daughter in another room. The officers then allegedly decided that Taylor’s daughter was not taking them seriously enough, handcuffed her, placed her in a squad car, and drove her to the police station, all without allowing her to see or speak to her mother.

Taylor’s daughter was not ultimately booked or charged with a crime, but she was held in custody for four hours. Taylor and her daughter have since moved out of Hawaii.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawaii and the law firm Caballero Law LLC filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Taylor and N.B. alleging false imprisonment, racial discrimination, and excessive force. 

Lawyers for the city and county of Honolulu said that the violent cartoon at issue depicted a figure holding a gun above a severed head along with a threatening and vulgar message. They argued the cartoon created probable cause for officers to handcuff and N.B., even though she was complaint, because the cartoon indicated she was a “terroristic” threat.

“The [Honolulu Police Department] is committed to its even-handed, unbiased, and fair application of its policies and procedures in dealing with and responding to credible threats involving school violence,” a spokesperson for the department told Reason in 2021. “In light of all of the events that have occurred on the mainland and here in Hawaii, and based on the facts, the HPD believes that its officers took action that they believed was reasonable and necessary under the circumstances given the nature of the threat.”

In addition to demanding $500,000 in damages, Taylor’s suit seeks to have the HPD and the Hawaii Department of Education enact several reforms, such as requiring that a parent or legal guardian be present whenever a minor is interrogated by an officer, and only calling police when a student presents an imminent threat of significant harm to someone.

Although the 9th Circuit denied the Honolulu police officers qualified immunity against Taylor’s excessive force claims, it did dismiss her false arrest claim against the officers, ruling that Taylor failed to cite cases with identical circumstances, and that her general claim that one has the right to be free from arrest without probable cause was insufficient.

This is far from the first time a child has ended up in handcuffs at school. An Orlando school resource officer made national headlines in 2019 when he arrested a 6-year-old girl. In another case, body camera footage showed officers in Key West, Florida, trying and failing to handcuff an 8-year-old boy, whose wrists were too small for the cuffs. In 2021 in Colorado, the ACLU sued the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly handcuffing an autistic 11-year-old boy and leaving him in the back of a police cruiser for two hours while he banged his head.

In response to such incidents, lawmakers around the country have been introducing legislation to raise the minimum age at which children can be arrested. Many states have no minimum age for juvenile delinquency, while others set the bar low. North Carolina’s, for instance, is at age six.

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