• California School District Found Liable for Setting Up Private Drug Sting Operation
  • November 21, 2011
  • Law Firm: Lynberg Watkins A Professional Corporation - Los Angeles Office
  • Recently, a jury awarded a $1,000,000 judgment against a Southern California school district for using a student as a decoy in a self-initiated drug sting operation. The officials at the school did not notify the police or the student’s parents prior to initiating its actions. The jury found the school district liable for negligent supervision, negligence per se for violating the criminal statute and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

    In the case, a twelve year-old student with a history of discipline problems notified a school official that another student tried to sell him drugs. The school official consulted with other school employees and concocted a sting operation to obtain evidence of the alleged dealer selling drugs. The reporting student was asked to act as a decoy. At no times was the police or the student’s parents contacted.

    The officials had the decoy student buy drugs from the suspected dealer with a marked bill while a school aide hid and observed the transaction. The sting was attempted twice during the day and on both events the dealer noticed the aide and did not provide any drugs. Nevertheless, shortly after the failed attempts the student decoy independently approached the dealer and purchased the drugs. The decoy quickly turned over the marijuana to the school officials. When the school officials attempted to detain the suspected drug dealer he ran away.

    The school district police was alerted thereafter. However, when investigators learned that a student had been used as a decoy, they turned the case over to the city’s police department. On the way home from school that day, the student told his mother what had happened. The next day, the parents went to school and confronted the school officials. Within a week of the incident the school officials involved had been transferred off campus. A lawsuit was filed by the student’s guardian shortly thereafter. The suspected dealer was not charged with a crime because the evidence against him was obtained illegally.

    In the civil trial against the District, the student's guardian sued the District and the individual school officials. The Plaintiff alleged negligent supervision, negligence per se and intention infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff argued that the school owed a duty to the minor to not put him in danger. A school administrator testified that school officials are never allowed to use students in a drug buy plan.

    Counsel for the Defendants argued that the school had to act quickly to apprehend the suspected drug dealer and get the drugs off campus and as such there was no time to contact the minor's parents before involving him in the operation. However, Plaintiff’s mother testified that she was home daily and easily reachable and would not have authorized her son's involvement in the sting. With regard to damages, Plaintiff claimed that he was ostracized by his classmates which led him to fail most of his coursework. Plaintiff also alleged that he was threatened because of his involvement in the drug sting and feared physical assaults. An expert for Plaintiff testified that the minor was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and underwent 30 to 35 counseling sessions. Defense counsel argued that the minor was a poor student and had discipline problems before the incident.

    Defendants presented testimony and evidence that the minor did not have post-traumatic stress disorder but instead suffered from "severe anxiety."

    After a full day of deliberation, the jury returned with a judgment for the Plaintiff in the amount of $1,015,250. The jury found the defendants were liable for negligent supervision and negligence per se, and had acted recklessly and outrageously, and awarded the plaintiff $500,000 for past non-economic loss, $500,000 for future non-economic loss, $15,000 for future tutoring, and $250 for past tutoring, for a total of $1,015,250.

    PRACTICAL TIP: Where school officials suspect a student of being involved in criminal activity, they should immediately contact the city’s police department or at the very least the school district police. Prior to contacting the police, the officials should not undertake any police-like investigations, arrests, or searches. Such actions may later prove detrimental to any criminal prosecution of the suspect and may result in civil liability for the school district.