BY JEN NOWELL
Daily Post Correspondent
An appeals court has ruled in favor of a former Redwood City high schooler, overturning the teenager’s convictions for battery and resisting arrest after he “lightly brushed” an officer’s hand in the school hallway.
The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled last Wednesday that the 17-year-old student’s touching of Redwood City Police Officer David Stahler was “incidental” and not “intentional” as Stahler initiated contact.
The appeals court slammed Stahler for elevating “what should have been a minor school disciplinary matter into one with potential criminal implication,” and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for pursuing the case in juvenile court where Judge Elizabeth Lee convicted the teenager.
The April 2017 incident began when Frank A. and three of his friends ditched class. The teen’s last name was concealed because he was a minor at the time of the incident.
A campus aide found Frank sitting at a computer in the library, and he asked the teen to go with him to the administrative vice principal’s office, which is where students are taken when they miss class.
At first, Frank refused to go with the aide, but agreed once the aide called Stahler for assistance. As he was leaving the library, Frank called his father using his cellphone and told the aide he wanted to go to the principal’s office instead.
Student told to put down phone
Stahler testified that he met Frank and the aide outside of the principal’s office, which was closed, and he saw the teen on his phone in violation of school policy. The officer said he “verbally encouraged” Frank to listen to the aide’s directions to go to the administrative vice principal’s office and to put down his phone, yet Stahler added that he was not enforcing the school’s cellphone policy.
“If a police officer tells you that you have to do something, you should do it,” Stahler said he told Frank. “I want to make sure you understand I’m a police officer and I’m asking you to do what I’m telling you right now.”
Stahler said Frank remained outside the principal’s office and on the phone with his father, with whom Stahler refused to talk to despite Frank’s urging.
The officer told the juvenile court that he then put his left hand on Frank’s back while standing to his right and used an “extremely light amount of force, just touching to encourage (Frank) to walk down toward the (administrative vice principal’s) office.”
The situation escalates
Frank “moved his arm back and away just to get my hand off his back,” Stahler said, and in doing so, he “kind of brushed me, but to me that was, you know, basically a form of battery on me.”
The teenager’s upper arm or elbow “lightly brushed” Stahler’s left hand as he moved away from Stahler, the officer said in court.
At that point, Stahler said he thought the teen was becoming a disruption by talking loudly on his phone in the hallway with classrooms nearby.
Stahler said he “decided … to escalate (his) force,” and he grabbed Frank’s wrist in order to take him to the administrative vice principal’s office.
“When Frank tried to pull his arm away, Stahler, thinking that Frank had committed battery by brushing Stahler’s left hand and resisted a peace officer by trying to pull away when Stahler grabbed his wrist, forced Frank to the ground, handcuffed him and arrested him,” according to the court filing.
At this point, the bell rang and students were entering the hallway.
‘A problem with authority figures’
A prosecutor argued in juvenile court that Frank “has a problem with authority figures and not just Officer Stahler, but authority figures at the school.”
According to the prosecutor, “there was clearly a violation of the cellphone policy, which seems to have started… this whole incident and series of events.”
A ‘minor touch’
Stahler tried to get Frank to put his phone away and listen to the aide, but Frank did neither, the prosecutor said. Stahler used a “minor touch,” but Frank brushed the officer which is battery, the prosecutor argued.
On appeal, the teenager argued that Stahler did not have the authority as a police officer to touch him the way he did, but the prosecution claimed that as a school resource officer, Stahler did have the authority.
The appeals court ruled there was no evidence to suggest Frank acted “willfully or unlawfully” to touch the officer.
“Stahler did not testify that Frank brushed Stahler in a rude or angry way,” according to the appeals court filing.
Frank’s attorneys argued that the prosecutor was using Frank’s “defiant words and history of defiance and all this stuff… to build this up.”
Prior to this interaction, in August 2016, Frank had another encounter with Stahler right after he started as the school’s resource officer. This incident led the teen’s father to file an official complaint alleging Stahler had physically handled his son in an “unlawful manner.”
There was an investigation, but Stahler continued working at the school.
The teen’s attorneys argued that he cooperated with the aide in the more recent incident to the point of wanting to go to the principal’s office, possibly because Frank had an issue with Stahler in the administrative vice principal’s office.
Frank’s attorneys also argued there was no evidence that the teen “willfully or maliciously engaged in unreasonable noise” that disrupted other students; he did not commit a battery because he came in contact with Stahler’s hand as the result of “a reflective motion” when he was touched; and Frank did not resist Stahler because the officer testified that he did not enforce the school’s cellphone policy, which would have led to detention and not arrest.
No evidence of resistance
The appeals court also found no evidence to support the notion that Frank resisted Stahler.
“There is no indication Stahler was enforcing any disciplinary rules in his encounter with Frank,” the court determined.
Stahler testified that he did not attempt to enforce the cellphone ban.
The appeals court also found through Stahler’s testimony that he only “encouraged” Frank to follow the aide’s instructions.
“We fail to see how a student can be found to have resisted a peace officer’s encouragement and requests,” according to the filing.
No direct orders
The appeals court determined that Stahler failed to give Frank any clear or direct orders, and he failed to give a warning or command before grabbing Frank’s wrist.