Supreme Court Declines to Rule on Fourth Amendment Rights in Child Abuse Interviews

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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to rule on the constitutional questioned posed by Camreta v. Greene and Alford v. Greene, cases that questioned whether child welfare officials should first obtain a warrant before questioning a possible child abuse victim at his or her school.

In its ruling, the court said the cases were moot because the child involved no longer had a personal stake in the outcome of the case. It vacated the earlier ruling in the case by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The cases involved an Oregon girl, identified in the court files as “S.G.,” who was 9 years old when she was interviewed at length by a child protection worker – while an armed police officer sat silently in the room -- about alleged abuse by her father. One of the cases was against the social worker and the other was against the police officer.

The Ninth Circuit had ruled that “the decision to seize and interrogate S.G. in the absence of a warrant, a court order, exigent circumstances, or parental consent was unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court justices split 7-2 in their ruling, but the dissents by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dealt with procedural matters concerning the court’s acceptance of cases involving limited immunity. The social worker and the police officer both were found to have such immunity by the lower courts.  

“S.G. can no longer claim the plaintiff’s usual stake in preserving the court’s holding because she is no longer in need of any protection from the challenged practice,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. S.G. now lives in Florida, and is about to turn 18 years old.

When “subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,” Kagan wrote, “we have no live controversy to review.”

The outcome of the case had been foreshadowed during March 1 oral arguments, which  largely became a referendum on whether it was appropriate for the high court to make a ruling in a case where neither side had a direct interest in the outcome.

S.G., Justice Antonin Scalia said during the arguments, “doesn’t care what happens. She’s moved, she is 17 years old.”

The arguments eventually moved to how the court might establish a rule on what type of questioning would require a search warrant, and what questioning conducted without one would not violate a child’s constitutional rights.

“They did not actually say whether they agree with the lower court’s ruling that the interrogation was unreasonable,” said James Peabody, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “They simply vacated the lower court’s decision that it did violate her rights.”

The Greene cases drew a slew of amicus briefs on both sides. The Obama administration, along with 40 states and the National Association of State Social Workers, filed on behalf of Oregon.

In his dissent, Kennedy predicted that the Fourth Amendment question decided by the Ninth Circuit “is bound to arise again in future cases. Indeed, the reasoning of the decision below implicates a number of decisions in other Courts of Appeals.”

Child welfare systems within a number of other judicial systems already require that a search warrant is obtained before a child is “seized” for questioning.

A national poll of 800 registered voters conducted in March  by Fairleigh Dickinson found that 58 percent of them believed that “authorities must inform the parents before they interrogate a child, unless there is a court order or an immediate danger.”

Click here to read the decision in the case.