In 2018, Sgt. Billy Matranga worked as the campus police officer at a high school. The school principal called Matranga into her office and showed him photographs of Lennon Betancourt posing with a caricature of himself drawn on a whiteboard with the words “future school shooter” written above it. This had been posted on social media and was causing public concern. Metranga handcuffed Betancourt and took him to the police station.
When his mother arrived, they interviewed Betancourt. The day before, a teacher had a class about school shootings and said that the stereotypical school shooter was a white male. As Betancourt was the only white student in the class, everyone began to make jokes. One student drew the caricature with the caption on the whiteboard. Acquiescing in the other students’ jokes, Betancourt went around the room giving fist bumps to students in response to their pretend pleas to spare them and also posed for a photograph with the caricature.
Betancourt was then arrested for violating a Louisiana law called terrorizing. Terrorizing is the intentional communication of information that the commission of a crime of violence is imminent or in progress or that a circumstance dangerous to human life exists or is about to exist, with the intent of causing members of the general public to be in sustained fear for their safety; or causing evacuation of a building, a public structure, or a facility of transportation; or causing other serious disruption to the general public.
The DA dismissed the charge and his mother then brought a §1983 against Metranga for arresting without probable cause. The district court judge granted summary judgement for the officer, finding that there was probable cause for the arrest and that Metranga was entitled to qualified immunity as well. The 5th affirms.
To overcome Sergeant Matranga’s qualified immunity defense, Betancourt must show that Sergeant Matranga’s conduct (1) violated a constitutional right and (2) that the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. Courts may address either prong in the qualified immunity analysis or both. Here, we conclude that Sergeant Matranga is entitled to qualified immunity because his actions did not violate clearly established law.
Even if an officer makes a warrantless arrest without probable cause, qualified immunity immunizes the officer from suit unless that officer had fair notice that his conduct was unlawful. Fair notice requires clearly established law. The plaintiff must show that the law is so clearly established that every reasonable official in defendant’s shoes would know not to engage in the complained of conduct.
Louisiana’s Terrorizing statute prohibits the (1) intentional communication of (2) information that the commission of a crime of violence is imminent with the (3) intent of causing members of the general public to be in sustained fear for their safety; or causing evacuation of a building . . . ; or causing other serious disruption to the general public.
At the time of the first arrest (taken to police station), Sergeant Matranga had seen a photo of Betancourt posing next to a caricature of himself labeled “Future School Shooter.” Sergeant Matranga also knew that someone had posted the photo to social media and that parents of other students had called the school to express concerns or to ask about taking their kids out of school.
Even assuming that Sergeant Matranga lacked actual probable cause, the court cannot conclude that every reasonable officer in his shoes would know that arresting Betancourt based on that information would violate the Fourth Amendment.
So, too, with the second arrest. At that time, Sergeant Matranga had interviewed both Betancourt and the student who drew the caricature. In his interview, Betancourt told Sergeant Matranga about the circumstances of the photo and insisted that it was all just a joke. Betancourt argues that Sergeant Matranga had no evidence of criminal intent and therefore lacked probable cause.
But even so, the court cannot conclude that every reasonable officer with that information would so conclude. More importantly, Betancourt does not even attempt to identify a single case where a court found that an officer violated the Fourth Amendment in similar circumstances. Nor has this court’s research revealed any such case.