Court: Legal challenge to campus police raid can't proceed in secret

If you want to pursue a misconduct claim against campus police, be prepared to do it in public, a federal district judge ruled last week.

U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann of the Western District of Pennsylvania refused to entertain a “John Doe” lawsuit by six present and former Bucknell University students who say a university-approved drug raid violated their constitutional rights.

The February 2012 search turned up drugs, drug paraphernalia and weapons, and although no criminal charges were brought, the students were brought before a campus judicial board and given minor disciplinary sanctions (community service, fines). Their names were not made public.

The students sued Bucknell’s president, general counsel, police chief and a variety of other campus and county officials they claim were responsible for planning, approving or directing the raid. The suit claims campus security officers entered the Kappa Sigma Alpha Phi fraternity house and a nearby private home along with two county sheriff’s deputies and unlawfully searched the premises without reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Bucknell’s own student handbook. (The suit claims the students were purposefully lured outside by false fire alarms so they couldn’t refuse consent for the search.)

The suit was filed using just the students’ initials, to avoid disclosing what the closed-door disciplinary process had managed to keep secret. But Judge Brann ruled that the students could not litigate the case anonymously.

The mere fear of embarrassment or harm to reputation, Brann wrote, does not overcome the strong presumption of openness in the federal courts. Only in “exceptional circumstances” have courts allowed parties to pursue cases without identifying themselves, the judge wrote. (For example, in suits brought by rape victims, where anonymity may be necessary to encourage reporting the crime, or in suits where a plaintiff would be disclosing embarrassing medical information or exposing himself to legal jeopardy by publicly admitting wrongdoing.)

The students now have the choice of proceeding in their own names or dropping the matter. The case is K.W. v. Holtzapple, No. 4:13-cv-3051.