Appeals court scolds police, DA over juvenile case

The First District Court of Appeal sits in the Earl Warren Building at 345 McAllister St. in San Francisco. AP file photo.
The First District Court of Appeal sits in the Earl Warren Building at 345 McAllister St. in San Francisco. AP file photo.

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.”

Previous incident

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.

6 Comments

  1. This is basically a case where a School Resource Officer escalates a minor problem into a crime that will haunt this boy for the rest of his life with a criminal record. The officer should be taken out of the school, disciplined and given a desk job. Not only does this kind of behavior by SROs create unnecessary disturbances, but it sets a bad example for the youth. The DA should have refused to file this case and yelled at the police for even submitting it. Glad it stops here. Hopefully the RWC Police can learn a lesson from this, though I’m not optimistic.

  2. Stahler will never be punished because police protect their own. A recent example is the Jim McGee case, a retired RWC cop who was in a 18-hour armed standoff with police who wanted to arrest him for domestic violence. After he’s arrested, the charges suddenly start dropping. First, no gun charge. Then the DV victim doesn’t want to testify. One charge after another. Then he gets probation. That’s how it works around here. The “justice system” protects the cops.

  3. Why are there police officers involved in upholding school policies, such as cell phone use? Ridiculous. Police should concern themselves with crime, not turning teens into criminals. Shameful behavior on the part of the police.

  4. The scary thing here is that our youth are not being told to repect authority. What happens in a society that decides to ignore rules? We are on a very slippery slope here, and allowing anyone to willfully ignore the agreed upon norms and rules will not end well. Once again, someone who is not doing the right thing will learn the lesson that he should continue to break the rules (and eventually laws) to serve his own needs. Police officers put their well-being and safety at risk to uphold laws. Stahler was called in for a reason and should be supported in this situation

  5. The altercation occurred in 2017 and the San Mateo County District Attorney chose to bring charges against the student, who was skipping a class and who did ignore instructions from a school official, soon backed up by the officer who had been summoned to the situation. Both the school official and the officer were ignored by the 17 yr. old student as they attempted to direct the student to the vice-principal’s office, which was the school’s rule. A resulting lawsuit ensued and a verdict was rendered, supporting the authorities involved. This article reported that an Appeals Court in San Francisco reversed the decision, which had backed the officer and the DA. I am concerned about the wider lesson stemming from this case; local communities do often supply (and we pay for) the presence of am “on campus” officer to assist school staff in similar cases, as well as wider duties regarding weapons, fights and unauthorized persons on school grounds as a symbol of deterrence. The point now seems to be that the students who are breaking school rules do NOT need to voluntarily join into taking actions, such as reporting to the pre-determined school authorities, even when commanded to do so by an officer of the law, who is therefore rendered “powerless”. The San Francisco Appeals Court appears to be sending a message to students that they do not need to follow school rules, that they do not need to comply with authority, whether it be a school authority or police authority. Is this the message the court intended? It is also the messages that our schools do not need “safety officers” because all students are “safe” at school whether they follow the rules or not

    • It wasn’t a lawsuit, it was a criminal conviction that was appealed. Get your facts straight!

      And it’s not “The San Francisco Appeals Court” but a state court of appeals that happens to be located in San Francisco. But I get the idea you’re trying to imply — they’re pushing “San Francisco values” down our throat, those liberals! Last time I checked, the appeals courts were in the business of interpreting state law, applicable in all 58 counties. Nice try!

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