Does interviewing a child at school without a warrant violate the Fourth Amendment? Supreme Court punts.

Date01 April 2011
AuthorKrzywonski, Christen

Supreme Court punts: Camreta v. Greene, 131 S. Ct. 2020 (2011)

DOES INTERVIEWING A CHILD at school without a warrant, court order or parental consent violate the child's Fourth Amendment right "to be secure ... against unreasonable searches and seizures ..."? (1) Should there be a special exception when sexual abuse is alleged or when a parent is the alleged sexual abuser? Many in the law enforcement, prosecution, child advocacy and parental rights communities strongly disagree on what constitutes a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes, as well as the complicated answers to these questions.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the nation's highest court agreed to settle a major child welfare controversy in October of 2010. (2) The result: the United States Supreme Court vacated the ruling, in part, by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in which a warrantless, inschool interview of a suspected child sexual abuse victim was declared unconstitutional. Child protective services (CPS) caseworkers have the clearance, for now, to conduct in-school interviews without a warrant or parental consent in the context of child abuse investigations.

The case involved an interview of a nine-year-old girl, S.G., conducted by a CPS caseworker, Bob Camreta, at an elementary school in the presence of a uniformed, visibly armed law enforcement officer. The Ninth Circuit held 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" (3) but that qualified immunity shielded Camreta and the officer, as individuals, from civil liability for damages under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983.

S.G.'s father, Nimrod Greene, was arrested for suspected sexual abuse of a seven-year-old boy. He was then suspected of sexually abusing S.G. and her five-year-old sister. Contrary to the CPS safety plan which both of S.G.'s parents agreed to pending an investigation, Greene had unsupervised contact with his daughters. Due to the involvement of S.G.'s parents, Camreta did not attempt to obtain parental consent to speak with S.G. He also did not obtain a warrant, as such interviews are a '"regular part of [CPS] practice and ... consistent with DHS rules and training.'" (4) As is in many jurisdictions, such child abuse investigation techniques were considered routine. Three days after Camreta received the initial report of sexual abuse, he interviewed S.G. in a private room at her school with an officer present. The duration and substance of the interview were disputed, though S.G. purportedly denied sexual abuse by her father, then disclosed sexual abuse and finally recanted. (5)

S.G.'s father was subsequently indicted on six counts of felony sexual assault of the seven-year-old boy and S.G., but the jury was unable to reach a verdict after trial. Subsequently, he entered an Alford plea with respect to the alleged abuse of the boy and, as part of a plea agreement, the charges concerning S.G. were dismissed. (6)

On behalf of S.G., her mother then sued Camreta and the officer for damages. While the Ninth Circuit ruled that the in-school interview, without a warrant or its equivalent, infringed S.G.'s Fourth Amendment rights, the Court also acknowledged that Camreta and the officer were entitled to qualified immunity. Thus, they were not liable to the Greenes for monetary damages. Despite the ruling in favor of Camreta and the officer, they petitioned the Supreme Court to review whether the Ninth Circuit correctly determined that their actions violated the Fourth Amendment. (7)

The Ninth Circuit found that Camreta directly involved "law enforcement personnel and purposes ... too deeply ... in the seizure of S.G. to justify applying the 'special needs' doctrine ..." (8) to lower the traditional Fourth Amendment protections. It cited the fact that the parents were not notified of the interview, and obtaining "permission from school officials to...

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