Cop Who Arrested High Schooler on ‘Terrorizing’ Charges for Class Joke Gets Qualified Immunity

Federal court recently decided that a police officer accused of questionably arresting a student at high school on terrorizing charges can’t be sued. But the decision making that official—along with a fiery dissenting opinion—shows how some facets of criminal justice reform do not have to be partisan.

Lennon Betancourt was a Grace King High School student in Metairie. In February 2018, he was photographed next to a cartoon of him labeled the “Future School shooter.” Although there were some concerns at first, it became apparent that the photograph was taken by Guy Farber. Farber was Betancourt’s health teacher and had taught a lesson on school shootings. He said the typical suspect was a white male. Betancourt, the only person in his class to fit that description, culminated in a harmless but crude exchange between students where he promised that he would spare them any violent outbursts. Betancourt was drew by a peer and posed for the photo while Farber laughed.

Sergeant Billy Matranga (a school resource officer) saw it and handcuffed Betancourt. They brought him to the station to check on him. Then, they placed him in a locked cell. Matranga learned about the less-than-seedy details—including, for instance, that Betancourt also hadn’t been the one to post the photo on social media—which were corroborated by another student. But he continued to arrest Betancourt for violating Louisiana’s terroristizing statute. This charge can lead to up 15 years imprisonment.

Betancourt was taken to juvenile detention where he spent the night. He was also fitted with an electronic monitor device. Although the charges against him were dropped within a month, Betancourt was still expelled school.

Despite Betancourt’s bizarre turn of events, Matranga was granted qualified immunity by the U.S Court of Appeals for 5th Circuit. It is a legal doctrine which protects employees of local or state governments from civil suits for rights-violations if a plaintiff fails to identify a court precedent that has ruled the misbehavior unconstitutional. Two police officers from Fresno in California were unable to sue Matranga qualified immunity after they stole $225,000 while executing a warrant. The plaintiffs lost their case because they didn’t receive a ruling stating that such theft was wrong.

Here we see a similar level of granularity from the majority at the 5th Circuit—along with a blistering dissent from a judge who is most known for his ultra-conservativism.

We conclude that Sergeant Matranga can be granted qualified immunity as his actions didn’t violate any ‘clearly set’ law. “Betancourt claims that Sergeant Matranga did not have any evidence of criminal intent, and thus lacked probable cause. However, even though this argument is strong, the court can’t conclude that EverywhereAny reasonable officer would draw that conclusion if they had such information.”

Some people disagree. Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan was one of those who disagreed. It is not uncommon for criminal justice debates to be polarized by partisan lines. This can lead to mind-numbingly high levels of polarization. Duncan’s response to the majority—composed of a Ronald Reagan appointee and a Barack Obama appointee—reminds us that it need not be that way.

Duncan stated that Lenon’s arrest stemmed from an evidently satiric photo that (1) Lenon had not taken, (2) Lenon hadn’t posted online, (3) and that was the result of a classroom joke Lennon himself was playing. “Matranga knew all that—and yet he arrested Lennon, clapped him in jail, and misled the district attorney….Qualified immunity does not protect the officer who orchestrated this outrageous clown show.”

Louisiana’s “terrorizing” statute requires defendants to be present. This is what Duncan’s dissent focuses on. IntentionallyInformation that encouraged the commission of a violent crime is sent to Matranga. However, Duncan points out that Matranga should not have been able to discredit the case details as they were available almost immediately. Duncan concludes that the “facts dispelled any notion Lennon was terrorizing.” “No rational officer would have concluded that Lennon was terrorizing or for another crime.

Betancourt’s case will likely be lost in the water. Matranga, however, will not go to civil court. Duncan’s reply is a good reminder of how victims can have recourse when state agents violate their rights.