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Lawsuit against a school board police officer for false arrest and involuntary commitment should not have been dismissed

Susan Khoury filed a lawsuit against the Miami Dade County School Board and Officer Williams, a school board police officer, for false arrest, excessive force, and First Amendment retaliation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983.  Williams had detained and committed her for an involuntary mental health examination under Florida’s Baker Act statute, Fla. Stat. §394.463 after Williams characterized her as being a danger to herself or others.  Khoury also made a Monell claim against the school board.  The district court granted summary judgment to as to all claims against the officer and the school board.  In this opinion, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal against the police officer but upheld the dismissal as to the school board.

Her claims arose from an incident that began when Khoury, who lived across the street from a middle school baseball field in Miami Dade County, was using her phone to record cars she believed were illegally parked around the baseball field.  Khoury had an argument with one of the drivers, who then called the police.  Officer Williams arrived, and after advising the driver that Khoury had a First Amendment right to film, Khoury and Williams had an argument which led to Williams arresting and detainer Khoury pursuant to the Baker Act.

For Khoury to overcome the officer’s qualified immunity protection from a false arrest claim under section 1983, Khoury must simply show that Williams did not have probable cause to detain her.  Under the Baker Act, the officer must have reason to believe that the person has a mental illness and because of the mental illness there is a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to herself or others in the near future as evidence by recent behavior.  If a reasonable officer could have believed this existed from the facts presented, then probable cause under the Baker Act would exist to involuntarily commit Khoury.

Williams and Khoury had different versions of what took place prior to her arrest.  The district court acknowledged that the circumstances leading up to Williams’s decision to detain Khoury pursuant to the Baker Act were disputed.  Khoury contests that she did not exhibit the behaviors Williams described and that she did not push Williams.  The district court concluded Khoury pushed Williams and was exhibiting concerning and odd behaviors, but to make these findings the court impermissibly weighed the evidence in favor of Williams at the summary judgment stage.

Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Khoury, there are disputed facts on the matter of whether officer Williams had probable cause to arrest and detain her pursuant to the Baker Act.  Under Khoury’s version Williams had gone rogue and she believe she needed another police agency to step in and protect her from an unlawful arrest.  The district court should not have made the credibility choice; It should have been left to a jury.

The federal district court also ruled against Khoury’s First Amendment retaliation claim.  But Khoury’s version was that Williams twisted her arm behind her back and detained her simply because she was filming the scene.  For that reason, the appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of this claim.

As to her Monell claims, the appellate court agreed with the district court’s decision that Koury’s evidence of a custom or practice of using the Baker Act to commit people who did not qualify for Baker Act commitment, there was insufficient evidence that the school board improperly used the Act to dilute arrest statistics.  The single incident of Khoury’s detention did not establish a custom by the school board.


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