Supreme Court to Decide if Warrants Needed for Some Abuse Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear two Oregon cases on whether a warrant is needed for a social workers or a police officer to interview a suspected child abuse victim at school. No date for arguments has been set.

The cases – Camreta v. Greene and Alford v. Greene, which involve the same family – arise from a 9th  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in December that an Oregon social worker and police officer violated the constitutional rights of a child abuse victim when they interviewed the girl at school without parental or court approval. That ruling is explained here.

Although such interviews are a common practice in some states and it was not the 9th Circuit’s first ruling that a warrant was required, the court’s strongly worded opinion made it clear that anyone who doesn’t abide by the law in the future forfeits his or her right to immunity from possible damages.

“We hasten to note that government officials investigating allegations of child abuse should cease operating on the assumption that a ‘special need’ automatically justifies dispensing with traditional Fourth Amendment protections in this context,” Circuit Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

The “special need” or exigent circumstances exception for warrantless searches has generally been applied in most suspected child abuse cases, although by law it only applies if the child might suffer serious harm during the time needed to acquire a warrant.

Berzon noted that there were no exigent circumstances in this case, because the officials waited three days to interview the child after hearing the abuse allegations.

Under the ruling, officials will no longer be allowed to question possible victims at school or any other place without either parental or judicial permission.

Bill Grimm, senior counsel for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., who also teaches child welfare law at the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School, said at the time of the decision that applying Fourth Amendment standards would require changes not only in the 9th Circuit (which includes Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Arizona) but across much of the country.

Several other circuits have heard similar parental rights cases involving the questioning of possible child abuse victims at school, but the rulings in those cases have been split. The 5th and 10th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have ruled that the Fourth Amendment standards apply; the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applied a lesser standard for allowing children to be questioned at school; and the 7th Circuit ruled that warrants are needed for students at private schools but not for those attending public schools.