Access to Justice

J.W. v. Paley

In J.W. v. Paley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was asked to consider whether public school officials who use excessive physical force against students may be held accountable for violating the Fourth Amendment.

Case Summary

J.W., a special education student at a Texas public school, tried to exit the school building to cool down after finding his designated “chill out” classroom occupied. To prevent him from leaving the building, school police officer Elvin Paley repeatedly tasered him, even after J.W. had fallen to the ground and stopped moving. The incident caused J.W. to suffer from intense anxiety and to miss several months of school.

J.W. sued officer Paley under Section 1983, a landmark civil rights statute that allows damages for violations of constitutional rights, asserting that the officer’s use of the taser constituted excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. Although Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit decisions make clear that public school students are protected from excessive force and other unreasonable seizures at the hands of school officials, a panel of the Fifth Circuit inexplicably held that the Circuit’s precedent did not clearly establish such a right. On that basis, the court granted Officer Paley “qualified immunity,” a judicially invented protection from liability for officials who violate constitutional rights.

J.W. petitioned the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, and CAC filed an amicus curiae brief urging the court to grant the petition and reconsider the panel’s flawed ruling.

As our brief explained, it has long been established that the Fourth Amendment prohibits public school officials from using excessive force to restrain students. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that school officials are subject to Fourth Amendment limits on unreasonable searches and seizures, and that a seizure carried out with excessive force is unreasonable. The Fifth Circuit has likewise held that students have a Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force by school officials. When Officer Paley tasered J.W., therefore, he knew or should have known that the Fourth Amendment prohibited him from using excessive force to seize a student.

Our brief further explained that tasering a person into submission is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. Whenever a government official intentionally terminates a person’s freedom of movement, a seizure has occurred.

Finally, our brief rebutted a concern that the panel cited as a reason for preventing students from bringing excessive force claims under the Fourth Amendment. The panel suggested that allowing such claims would “eviscerate” the Fifth Circuit’s limits on constitutional challenges to corporal punishment under the Due Process Clause. But as we explained, corporal punishment and Fourth Amendment seizures are not the same: corporal punishment can be inflicted without a seizure, and seizures can be carried out for reasons other than punishment. Furthermore, in situations where an official’s conduct could qualify as both corporal punishment and a seizure, Supreme Court precedent requires that such conduct be evaluated under Fourth Amendment standards, not due process standards.

On November 18, 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition for rehearing en banc.

Case Timeline

  • August 23, 2021

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    5th. Cir. Amicus Brief
  • November 18, 2021

    Fifth Circuit denies petition for rehearing en banc

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