Police officer hired by private university established entitlement to official immunity

William Marsh Rice University and Gary Spears v. Rasheed Rafaey 14-13-00235-CV (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.], May 17th 2016)

A man arrested by a private-university peace officer sued the officer and the university asserting various tort claims, but the 14th Court of Appeals determined the officer (and by extension the University) established entitlement to official immunity.

Gary Spears is a licensed law enforcement officer.  On the night in question, Spears was on duty working for Rice University as a police officer.  Spears saw two cars, one behind the other, one block from campus.  Rasheed Refaey was in the driver’s seat of the second vehicle. Officer Spears believed that the vehicles were obstructing the roadway because the lane in which the vehicles were stopped was impassable. When Spears approached, the traffic light facing Refaey’s car turned green, but Refaey did not depart. Spears initated a traffic stop but that is when Refaey drove onto Main Street. According to Refaey, about one mile into this drive, he realized that the police officer was following him.  Nonetheless, Refaey did not pull over. Refaey’s position is that since Rice University is a private university, Rice police have no business pulling him over, especially since he was never technically on Rice property. When Rafaey finally did pull over he had a heated debate with Spears. During this argument, Officer Spears noticed Refaey’s eyes were red and watery and that he had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. Officer Spears placed Refaey in handcuffs and arrested him on suspicion of having committed the offenses of evading arrest and driving while intoxicated. Later, all charges against Refaey were dropped.  He sued the University and Spears asserting negligence, false-imprisonment, assault, and intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress claims based on his allegedly unlawful arrest and detention. Officer Spears and Rice University (hereinafter the “Rice Parties”) moved for summary judgment based on official immunity. The trial court denied the motion, and the Rice Parties appealed.

This case originally went up to the Texas Supreme Court which held licensed police officers could be entitled to official immunity while working for private universities.  The Court remanded the case for a determination if it should apply in this case. The 14th Court of Appeals first determined that private universities may employ state licensed police officers under the Education Code. The summary-judgment evidence proves as a matter of law Officer Spears was performing duties assigned to him by Rice University and that these duties were performed in Harris County, Texas, a county in which Rice University has land. To be entitled to official immunity, such actions, however, must be consistent with Rice’s educational mission. The statute does not require that the duties assigned be “consistent with the mission statement of the institution,” nor does the statute require that the duties be “listed in the mission statement of the institution.”  It is uncontested the University’s mission statement does not address patrolling on public streets. However, Rice University submitted testimony that when a Rice officer investigates possible traffic violations the officer is ensuring the health and welfare of the students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus, which furthers Rice University’s educational mission. Refaey’s car was stopped across the street from part of the Rice University campus. Refaey did not submit any evidence to contradict that such patrols and investigations were contrary to Rice’s educational mission. Further, after analyzing the testimony, the court held the evidence proves that a reasonably prudent officer, under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed that Officer Spears’s conduct was justified based on the information Officer Spears had at the time. As a result, Spears established entitlement to official immunity. The University, by extension, also established immunity. The summary judgment should have been granted.

For the full opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost, Justice Boyce and Justice Jamison. Opinion by Chief Justice Frost. The attorney listed for Rafaey is Derrick Michael Saulsberry. The attorney listed for the University is Lara Hollingsworth.