Florida court allows lawsuit against ex-school officer accused of body slamming a student

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court Monday said a former Central Florida school-resource officer can face a civil lawsuit stemming from an incident in which he “slammed” a 13-year-old student to the floor and pinned him.

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A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district judge’s ruling that former Officer Mario Badia was entitled to immunity from allegations of excessive force and battery. The panel upheld immunity for Badia on a claim of false arrest.

The 2015 incident at Kissimmee Middle School started when student Trellus Richmond arrived late to school with his mother. The youth was wearing a hoodie, in violation of school rules, and pushed his mother away when she tried to remove it, according to Monday’s ruling.

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A front-office attendant used a radio to alert Badia, who responded to a lobby area and spoke to Richmond.

“Then, without warning, Badia grabbed Richmond’s face, shoved him in the chest, and threw him to the ground using an ‘armbar’ technique,” said Monday’s main opinion, written by Judge Andrew Brasher and joined by Judge Kevin Newsom. “Badia pinned Richmond down for over three minutes, then pushed him in the back as he walked away.”

The incident was captured on video, and Badia was subsequently terminated from his job and pleaded guilty to a battery charge, according to the ruling.

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Richmond also filed a civil lawsuit, but a district judge ruled in favor of Badia, in part because of what is known as “qualified immunity.” Generally, qualified immunity helps protect government officials from liability in civil lawsuits.

The appeals court agreed Badia was shielded by qualified immunity from the false-arrest claim because of “arguable probable cause” to arrest the teen for battery on his mother.

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But the court focused heavily on whether Badia should be shielded on the excessive-force claim. Brasher and Newsom concluded that Badia should face the excessive-force claim, with the main opinion saying “Badia had no law enforcement justification for grabbing Richmond’s face, slamming him to the ground, or twisting his arm.”

“Richmond was being investigated for a misdemeanor, did not pose a threat to anyone’s safety, and was not attempting to flee,” Brasher wrote. “We further note that Richmond was just 13 years old, considerably smaller than Badia and standing in a middle school lobby with his mother.”

But Judge Elizabeth Branch dissented on the excessive-force issue, writing that Richmond knocked Badia’s hand away when the officer grabbed the youth’s face. Branch wrote that “Badia’s first use of force, the head grab, was … not unconstitutional.”

“Because Badia’s first use of force was not unconstitutional, neither was his second use of force — responding to Richmond knocking his hand away by arm-barring him and pushing him to the floor,” she wrote.