In January 2017, after being questioned by school officials and a school resource officer about possession of child pornography, 16-year-old Corey Walgren escaped a school office, left the campus, and fell to his death from the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Naperville. Walgren’s estate claimed the school officials and a school resource officer violated Walgren’s Constitutional rights. The school officials and school resource officer moved to dismiss the claims arguing that, as alleged, the plaintiffs could not state a cause of action. The court agreed with the defendants and dismissed all counts but granted the plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint.
Corey Walgren was sitting down for lunch when a school dean asked him to come to the dean’s office. The dean and a school resource officer began interrogating the high school junior about an allegation that he was in possession of child pornography on his cell phone. During the course of the questioning, the officer and dean told Walgren that if he was in possession of such material that he would have to register as a sex offender. Once the interrogation ended, Walgren was escorted to the dean’s office and ordered to wait. The officer and dean then contacted Walgren’s mother. Walgren’s mother said she was on her way to the school and the school officials and the officer intended to keep Walgren in the office until she arrived. However, before she arrived, Walgren escaped the office, fled campus, and presumably committed suicide by jumping from the top floor of a parking garage.
Plaintiffs, Walgren’s estate and immediate family members, sued the school officials, resource officer, school district, and City of Naperville for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment based on unreasonable conditions of confinement, deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, state-created danger, intentional interference with the parent-child relationship, and conscience-shocking coercive interrogation. Plaintiffs also brought state law claims of willful and wanton conduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the individual defendants. The municipal defendants were accused of violations under Monell and respondeat superior, which means that a municipality may be liable for the actions of its agents.
Both the unreasonable conditions of confinement claim and the deliberate indifference claim are governed by the Fourth Amendment. The court punted on the issue of whether a seizure in a school is to be analyzed differently than outside a school because, even assuming a seizure in this case, there was no allegation that the individual defendants acted in an objectively unreasonable manner. The questioning of Walgren did not exceed the bounds of an ordinary interrogation. Generally, unless physical force is used, police interrogation tactics do not subject police officers to civil liability. Therefore, the conditions of confinement claim was dismissed.
The deliberate indifference to serious medical needs claim was also dismissed as Plaintiffs failed to indicate that any individual defendant had actual notice that Walgren was contemplating self-harm. Furthermore, Walgren had no history indicating he was at risk of self-harm. Importantly, the court refused to impute knowledge to the resource officer based solely on the fact that the officer accused an individual of a sex crime, as that would be too broad to constitute notice.
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause governed plaintiffs’ coercive interrogation, state-created danger, and interference with parent-child relationship claims. The court held that the tactics used by the officials did not shock the conscious and were justified by a government interest – investigation of a crime. Generally, police may lie to, threaten, and insult suspects during interrogations. Furthermore, Walgren’s status as a juvenile did not alter the court’s evaluation. Therefore, the interrogation was not overly coercive.
As for the state-created danger claim, the Seventh Circuit has recognized that persons put in danger by public employees have colorable claims. However, the defendants had no knowledge that Walgren was suicidal nor did his history contain anything that would allude to the possibility of self-harm. None of the individual defendants’ actions would “shock the conscience.” Therefore, plaintiffs’’ claim failed.
Likewise, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ interference with the parent-child relationship claim. The state may not violate a parent’s fundamental right to make decisions about the care, custody, and control of the parent’s child. To state a claim, a plaintiff must allege facts indicating that the state’s action was specifically aimed at interfering with the parent-child relationship. Here, the defendants’ actions were aimed at investigating a crime, not at interfering with the parent-child relationship; there was no evidence that the defendants intended to separate Walgren from his parents. Although Illinois statute dictates that, upon the warrantless arrest of a minor, the officer must make a reasonable attempt to notify the parent, there is no prohibition on the officer questioning the minor before the parent arrives. Furthermore, state law violations do not form the basis of liability under § 1983.
Plaintiffs’ state law claims were also dismissed. Plaintiffs relied on their Constitutional arguments for their willful and wanton claim. Since all the Constitutional claims were dismissed, so was the willful and wanton claim.
The final state law claimed asked the court to equate a police interrogation with intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court stated it did not doubt that Walgren suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the interrogation and that the government officials should likely have known that threatening a teenager with the consequences associated with possession of child pornography would cause severe emotional distress. Therefore, the key question was whether the defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous. Here, the officials did not use any tactics outside the norm and, therefore, their conduct could not be deemed extreme and outrageous.
HCB attorneys Michael Bersani, Charles Hervas, David Matthues, and Tony Fioretti contributed to the victory.