The Georgia Supreme Court recently decided a case concerning private campus officers and qualified immunity.
The first sentence of the decision is as follows:
“We granted certiorari to decide whether a campus police officer employed by a private college qualifies as a “state officer or employee” who may assert immunity from tort suits under the Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA), OCGA §§ 50-21-20 to 50-21-37.”
In a previous piece, I outlined the statutory authority of campus law enforcement agencies. Let me be very clear that this case pertains only to the the campus police agencies of private colleges. It has absolutely, positively nothing to do with the campus police departments of public educational institutions.
The legal question arises from a case handled by the Agnes Scott College Department of Public Safety (ASCDPS). The personnel involved are fully certified peace officers. They attended the same academies as do deputy sheriffs and municipal police officers.
The ASCDPS received a report from a student claiming that she had been sexually assaulted in her dorm room. She named a suspect. An officer from the ASCDPS went to a judge and obtained an arrest warrant for the suspect named by the complainant. The suspect was arrested in Knoxville, TN, and extradited to Georgia. The suspect offered proof that she was in Knoxville at the time of the alleged assault, and the District Attorney dropped the charges. The suspect then filed suit against the officers and Agnes Scott College for false arrest.
The officers sought to have the lawsuit dismissed claiming immunity under state law. The initial trial court rejected this argument; however, the Court of Appeals overturned the trial court. To simplify the writing of this, the statute provides that law enforcement officers have immunity, but the statute also excludes private organizations. The appellate decision was split. The state Supreme Court recognized the reasoning of the appellate decision but overturned the decision due to Agnes Scott College being a private organization.
So, yes, the ASCDPS officers are in fact law enforcement officers, but as they work for a private organization, they are not covered under the state’s immunity laws.
Again, this ruling does not apply to the campus police officers of public institutions.
Now that the legal question has been settled, the actual lawsuit is clear to go forward.
The same case is up on appeal again, following a mistrial (an ex-cop on the jury was calling buddies to discuss the case, was Googling the legal issues, etc., and then sharing the information and his opinions with other jurors). In their brief, the plaintiff’s attorney has raised several interesting points regarding the status of campus police officers at private institutions, and is arguing that the legislature did not intend that they have the status of peace officers or law enforcement officers, and that they instead were to be something akin to very well trained security officers, vested with some law enforcement powers. The brief points out that they do not fit within the definitions of “law enforcement officer” or “peace officer” in the P.O.S.T. Act, and that there are multiple code sections, in multiple titles of the Code, in which “peace officer” and “campus police officer” are addressed in different subsections. The brief also points out that another type of proprietary police, railroad police, are specifically included in the definition of “peace officer,” while private campus police officers aren’t. Along similar lines, the MARTA Act both states that MARTA officers are peace officers and provides for an oath of office. In contrast to any other type of police officer (or peace officer or law enforcement officer) campus police at private institutions are not subject to any oath of office and are specifically exempted from any duty to exercise their powers (O.C.G.A. 20-8-3). In other words, they may have the law enforcement authority of police officers (if the Board of Trustees, etc. of their school has authorized), but their duties are only those that are imposed by their private employers. No duty to faithfully enforce, to preserve public order, or to act without favor or bias. In fact, private campus police departments usually have been created for the PURPOSES of assuring unequal treatment and shielding students from faithful enforcement of State laws.
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