ACLU Lawsuit Charges Hawai'i School Officials and Police with Persecution of 12-Year-Old Girl

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
November 16, 2000 12:00 am

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HONOLULU–School officials and city police officers violated a 12-year-old girl’s rights when they had her arrested, handcuffed and partially strip-searched over a missing $20 bill, all without notifying her parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai’i charged in a federal lawsuit today.

“This case is a shocking example of government abuse of power by a school principal, the police and the prosecutor’s office,” said ACLU Legal Director Brent White. “Between the principal’s bullying and the willing complicity of the police in arresting and handcuffing a child in front of her classmates, it is hard to say who acted more despicably.”

In order to protect the family’s privacy, the ACLU is filing the lawsuit on behalf of “Ms. Doe Parent” and “Minor Child,” and is asking members of the media not to reveal their identities.

The case arose on April 23, 1999, when the student was accused by a classmate of taking a $20 bill. Between April 23 and May 4, she was questioned by the school principal at least five times. School officials never responded to the girl’s claim that she had been falsely accused, and no other students were questioned in the matter.

In legal papers filed today, the ACLU charged violations of the girl’s rights to privacy, security, bodily integrity, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to be free from false imprisonment, under state and federal constitutions and the laws of the United States. The ACLU is seeking an unspecified amount of punitive and financial damages on behalf of the girl and her family.

Defendants in the lawsuit are Niu Valley Intermediate School Principal Eric Heu and Honolulu police officers Nelson Omandam, Frederick Kennet Rosskopf, Michael Paul Johnson, Franklin Dennis Martin, R. Pudiquet and Sergeant G. Cancino. Other police officers are also expected to be named as defendants.

Principal Heu appeared to be a key actor in the ongoing harassment and persecution of the girl. According to the ACLU’s complaint, several weeks following the school’s initial investigation, Heu personally arranged to have the student arrested during school hours in front of her classmates.

She was searched, handcuffed and arrested without a warrant, without evidence that a criminal act had occurred, and without parental notification. During the arrest police officers laughed and taunted the student as she cried, the complaint said.

“There are very clear procedures that must be followed by both school officials and police officers when arresting a minor,” said ACLU co-counsel and civil rights attorney Eric Seitz. “This contemptuous disregard for established procedures by public officials who took an oath to uphold the law must be punished.”

White noted that Hawai’i’s Department of Education recently announced plans to retrain school principals. “The Department of Education should make clear that any principals must follows the law and repect the rights of parents,” he said.

At the police station, the student was further taunted by several officers and partially strip-searched by a female officer while male officers and prisoners looked on. She was then left alone in a holding cell.

“Unfortunately, nothing can undo the damage that has been done to this child,” said White. “The embarrassment and humiliation did not end on the day she was falsely arrested. She was treated like a criminal by her teachers and ridiculed by other students after returning to school with taunts like ‘ex-con’ and ‘jailbreak.’ Worse, she continued to suffer harassment at the hands of Principal Heu.”

ACLU legal papers document that in March 2000, of the following school year, Heu and other school officials confiscated, read and circulated the student’s private journal “for their own perverse enjoyment.” Heu refused repeated requests from the student’s mother to return the journal until the ACLU intervened.

After the journal incident, the student’s father told Heu that the ACLU was considering litigation over the 1999 illegal arrest and search of his daughter. Two weeks later — nearly one year after the original accusation was made — the case was revived by Heu and forwarded to the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for action.

A petition was then filed by the Office, a month after the statute of limitations had run out, charging the child with Theft in the Fourth Degree. The charges were dismissed by Family Court on June 21, 2000.

The ACLU lawsuit said that the child withdrew from Niu Valley Intermediate School on March 13, 2000, “in order to escape further embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress” at the hands of Principal Heu and others.

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