Access to Justice

J.W. v. Paley

In J.W. v. Paley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering 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 explains, it has long been clearly 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 explains 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 rebuts 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 explain, 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.

Case Timeline

More from Access to Justice

Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Reed v. Goertz

In Reed v. Goertz, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider when the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim challenging the adequacy of state procedures for seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence...
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga

In FBI v. Fazaga, the Supreme Court is considering whether allegations of unlawful government surveillance may be adjudicated using procedures in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act instead of being dismissed as a result of the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Roe v. United States

In Roe v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is considering whether an employee of the federal judiciary can sue under the Fifth Amendment for sex discrimination experienced in the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Frasier v. Evans

In Frasier v. Evans, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether police officers who knowingly violated a person’s First Amendment right to film them making an arrest are entitled to qualified immunity.
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Gonzalez v. Trevino

In Gonzalez v. Trevino, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering what threshold requirements individuals must satisfy to bring First Amendment claims against a state or local official for arresting them...
Access to Justice
June 25, 2021

RELEASE: Roberts Court Hands Business Another Win, Closes Courthouse Doors to Those Harmed by Corporation

WASHINGTON – Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, Constitutional Accountability Center...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra