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Appeals Court Says No 'Custodial' Duty In Parkland Shooting

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MATIAS J. OCNER
/
MIAMI HERALD

A federal appeals court Friday rejected a lawsuit filed by current and former students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who alleged that Broward County officials had a “custodial” duty to protect them from the 2018 mass shooting at the Parkland school.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision that sided with a series of defendants, including Broward County, Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie, former Sheriff Scott Israel and former school-resource officer Scot Peterson.

The lawsuit was filed by current and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who said they suffered psychological injuries from the shooting, which killed 17 people. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants had a duty “to act when faced with a known threat of danger and that defendants’ conduct was arbitrary and conscience-shocking” in violation of constitutional due-process rights, according to a court filing.

But in a December 2018 ruling dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom wrote that the “critical question the court analyzes is whether defendants had a constitutional duty to protect plaintiffs from the actions of (accused shooter Nikolas) Cruz.” She said the plaintiffs would “have to be considered to be in custody” for such a duty to exist.

The panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court agreed with Bloom’s analysis Friday, pointing to court precedents that said schoolchildren are not in a custodial relationship with officials.

“The students identify just one fact that differentiates this appeal from our precedents — the presence of armed school-safety officers — but the students fail to explain how the presence of these officers converts a non-custodial relationship into a custodial one,” said the 17-page opinion, written by Chief Judge William Pryor and joined by Judges Frank Hull and Stanley Marcus. “The officers’ presence on school grounds, whether by itself or in combination with truancy and compulsory attendance laws, does not restrain students’ freedom to act in a way that is comparable to incarceration or institutional confinement. Because the students were not in custody at school, they were not in a custodial relationship with the officials.”

The lawsuit, at least in part, focused on a failure to prevent Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, from entering the Parkland campus and the actions of law-enforcement and security officers after shots began.