The Georgia Supreme Court is considering a case that could have big implications for private college police forces across the state.
Justices heard oral arguments in Hartley vs. Agnes Scott College Tuesday at Mercer University's School of Law, itself a private school with a police force that could be affected by the outcome.
In the case, a young woman is suing campus police at Agnes Scott, a private women’s college in Decatur, for false arrest, among other things.
The Georgia Court of Appeals determined that the privately hired officers are immune because they were functioning as agents of the state, like sheriff's deputies or state troopers.
Georgia, like other states, has a law on the books that gives qualified, sworn campus police officers the power to enforce law within their jurisdiction.
But the government doesn’t like the idea that it could be held accountable for the actions of officers who don’t work for it.
“This is the first and only time that we know of that a court in Georgia has extended immunity to a private individual acting on behalf of a private entity, not acting on behalf of a state government entity,” said Sr. Assistant Georgia Attorney General Loretta Pinkston during oral argument.
Accepting some level of responsibility for campus police wouldn’t threaten the state treasury, argued Laurie Webb Daniel, attorney for Agnes Scott.
“These private schools contribute millions of dollars collectively every year to law enforcement, a need that otherwise would have to be covered by the public at public expense,” she said.
The case presents justices with a number of legal quandaries.
Regular police derive their discretionary authority from the elected officials that hire them, and are therefore indirectly answerable to the voters, observed Justice David E. Nahmias. In contrast, police at private colleges answer only to their employers.
Campus police officers are empowered to enforce law, but they are not "law enforcement," argued Lloyd Bell, attorney for Amanda Hartley, the woman suing Agnes Scott.
The justices peppered the attorneys in the case with aggressive questions. Many Mercer law students in attendance looked on with shocked expressions, including first-year student Tyler Bishop.
Asked if the experience gave him second thoughts about his chosen profession, Bishop said: “To me, it was just like sitting in class. The professors have very, very in-depth questions.”
The Georgia Supreme Court has heard cases at Mercer before, but this was the first time since Hugh P. Thompson (Mercer Law, 1969) became Chief Justice this summer.
“(My wife Jane and I) lived over in married housing about where the new football field house is,” Thompson said as he exercised his judicial privilege to wax about his alma mater before getting down to business.
Thompson, who lives in Milledgeville, reminded law students and faculty that the antebellum state Supreme Court was based in Milledgeville but traveled continuously from circuit to circuit.
The contemporary court sits almost exclusively in Atlanta. “We don’t normally make house calls,” Thompson said to chuckles. But the court does generally visit one law school each year to give students an up-close look at the highest levels of state law.
The other case justices heard at Mercer involved one of the world’s richest companies.
In Danforth vs. Apple, Inc., a woman is appealing a lower court’s order that she stay away from all Apple stores worldwide.
Catherine E. Danforth was fired in August 2012 from her job at the Lenox Square Apple Store in Atlanta. She has a history of mental illness and was prone to outbursts, Apple’s lawyers claim in their court filings.
After months in which she allegedly stalked her former co-workers, sent harassing emails and text messages and left notes in employees-only areas of the store, Apple lawyers sought and received a temporary restraining order against Danforth.
Earlier this year, a Cobb County Superior Court judge issued a permanent injunction ordering Danforth to refrain from contact with Apple employees and to stay at least 500 feet away from any Apple store for three years.
In their questioning, the justices appeared sympathetic to the spirit behind the injunction, but skeptical of the specifics.
“If she got a (Facebook) friend request from an Apple employee, a new hire, someone she never met, and she responded, that would seem to put her at risk of being prosecuted as a felon,” said Justice Nahmias.
Justices will issue rulings in both cases in four to six months.