U.S. District Judge William E. Smith recently ruled that Coventry police officers who searched a bus full of Central Falls soccer players for stolen cell phones and iPods were protected by qualified immunity according to a report in the Providence Journal.
The soccer game ended in a tie three years ago, but what unfolded next was a search by Coventry police officers before jeering onlookers of visiting Central Falls players accused of stealing cell phones and iPods. The officers’ search turned up nothing.
Eleven of those players filed suit in federal court, alleging the police violated their right to be free from unreasonable searches, invaded their privacy and amounted to racial profiling and ethnic intimidation.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William E. Smith said he was dismayed and disappointed by the officers’ lack of professional judgment and the appalling actions of the crowd. But, he said, the officers were protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability as long as their conduct does not violate rights of which any reasonable person would have known.
The players, who are no longer in school, appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.
…The varsity soccer game between Central Falls and Coventry had just ended in a 2-2 tie. Six Central Falls players used the bathrooms in the boys’ locker room as a security guard looked on. Coach Bobby Marchand sent the players to the bus, where they were met by about 20 Coventry football players who swore as they accused the Central Falls players of stealing the iPods. The coach said he would get to the bottom of it and spent about 25 minutes searching the players’ bags. None of the missing items was found.
The crowd, by this time, grew to 50. They shouted derogatory and racist remarks and threatened not to leave until the items were found.
Four Coventry police officers arrived and boxed the bus in. The topic of whether the police could conduct their own search arose; Marchand consented. He later testified he felt compelled to do so under the circumstances.
The officers ordered the players to exit the bus with their belongings and stand with their backs against the bus as the crowd continued to shout racial epithets and accusations. The police ordered each player to step forward with his bag. The officers searched the bags and held each cell phone or iPod found up for the purported “victims” to identify, the ruling states.
Smith found that the officers were shielded by qualified immunity but that “it was a close call as to whether a constitutional violation occurred.”
“And,” he wrote, “it is undisputed that the police did not have a search warrant and the search of the boys was not supported by probable cause.”
The opinion is here.