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“Immoral conduct” standard unconstitutionally vague without narrower construction

A state law allowing the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board to deny a substitute teacher license for immoral conduct was unconstitutionally vague, a Minnesota appellate court ruled November 28 in the case of a former police officer who had killed a motorist in a nationally-reported incident.

But the court also held that the “immoral conduct” phrase could be salvaged by narrowing its construction to mean “unfitness to teach.”

In re Yanez

Yanez, who had made the stop on the pretextual reason of a broken light but stated he believed Castile was a robbery suspect, had fired five shots into the car despite Castile complying with his instructions. The shots killed Castile and almost hit a child. Yanez had resigned after being acquitted at a criminal trial.

The board’s disciplinary committee recommended the denial of Yanez’s application because of the killing of Castile. Yanez appealed, but, following a hearing, an administrative judge recommended the board deny Yanez’s application on the grounds that Yanez’s killing of Castile was unjustified and constituted immoral conduct.

The board followed the recommendation and Yanez appealed again. The case rose to the Court of Appeals of Minnesota, which issued a mixed decision November 28, sending the case back to the board with instructions that would likely allow it to again reject Yanez’s application.

Yanez’s primary argument challenged a moral character requirement that the board had cited to deny his application. Minnesota law allows the board to deny a teaching license on the grounds of “immoral character or conduct.” On appeal, Yanez argued that this phrase was unconstitutionally vague, a question of first impression in the state.

Citing case law from other jurisdictions, the court agreed that the phrase was ambiguous, writing that “The meaning of the phrase is, at a minimum, ‘nebulous’ . . . and is vulnerable to the caprice of ever-changing public opinion and the potential for arbitrary, biased enforcement.”

Despite that finding of vagueness, the court did not rule the statute unconstitutional, holding that narrowing construction of the phrase to “an unfitness to teach” would avoid that outcome. Remanding the case to the board to apply this new construction, the court wrote that it “requires the board to then assess whether and how that conduct relates to Yanez’s fitness to teach in the public schools,” while identifying the weight it accorded to factors it considers relevant.

Yanez also argued that the board applied an incorrect legal standard for the use of deadly force in making its decision that his killing of Castile was unjustified. The board had ruled that such force must be objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, but Yanez argued that his subjective beliefs could justify his action. The court disagreed. “The review is from the perspective of a reasonable police, officer, not that of the involved officer,” Judge Segal wrote.

Yanez also took issue with an apparent decision by the board to label his pretextual stop of Castile, based on the broken light, as immoral conduct. Here the court agreed with Yanez, noting that this conclusion was “problematic because it labels as immoral a common practice in the job of policing that has been upheld by the courts.”

The court concluded that the potential error did not doom the board’s decision because it was just one of many reasons listed as the basis for the denial, but it cautioned the board to treat the issue neutrally on remand.