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On The Front Lines

Maryland School Claims Immunity in Lawsuit Over Wrongful Suspension of Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter)

BALTIMORE, Md. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal court to hold Maryland school officials accountable for wrongfully targeting for arrest and subsequently suspending two high school lacrosse players for allegedly possessing “deadly weapons,” namely a penknife and a butane lighter, which were found in their lacrosse bags and were widely understood to be tools used to maintain their lacrosse equipment. The Institute’s legal filing comes in response to a motion filed by the Board of Education of Talbot County and school administrators claiming that they should be immune from liability in the lawsuit arising over the violation of Graham Dennis and Casey Edsall’s constitutional right to due process and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Part of the reason we’re in the state we’re in—in terms of the way our various government agencies operate, from the schools to the police to Congress—is because we have failed to hold government officials accountable when they overstep the bounds of the Constitution and violate our rights,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “The actions by the school and the police in this case were egregious by any standard, and it’s our hope the court will send a strong message to government officials that they don’t get to play by a separate set of rules but must abide by our Constitution.”

Based on a so-called “tip” that there may have been alcohol on the Easton High School lacrosse team’s bus, school officials boarded the bus on April 13, 2011, and searched the players’ bags. Graham Dennis told one official that he had a pocketknife, which had a blade measuring 2.5 inches, in his bag and complied with a request to retrieve the pocketknife. Dennis’s bag also contained other tools he used to repair and maintain his lacrosse equipment. During the search, officials discovered a lighter in Casey Edsall’s bag. Although the items were used by the boys to maintain their lacrosse equipment, the police were called. Dennis was arrested and charged as a juvenile in possession of a deadly weapon. The School Board upheld suspensions imposed by school officials: Edsall for one day and Dennis for ten days.

In response to an appeal by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, in April 2012, the Maryland State Board of Education reversed the suspensions, ruling that the suspensions were improperly harsh discipline for first offenses. Institute attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Maryland in December 2013, alleging that the suspensions deprived Dennis and Edsall of their right to a public education without due process of law because Easton High School’s student handbook did not define the tools as “dangerous weapons” the possession of which is prohibited. The lawsuit also alleges that school officials did not have reasonable suspicion that the boys’ belongings contained contraband and so the search conducted by officials violated the boys’ Fourth Amendment rights. School officials subsequently filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case based on qualified immunity. Affiliate attorney John W. Garza is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its lawsuit on behalf of Dennis and Edsall.

Case History

12-11-2013: Rutherford Institute Sues Maryland School Over Wrongful Suspension of Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter)