Oral argument: Mar. 1, 2011
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Oct. 12, 2010)
FOURTH AMENDMENT, PROBABLE CAUSE, REASONABLENESS TEST, SPECIAL NEEDS, QUALIFIED IMMUNITY
When the Oregon Department of Human Services received a report of alleged abuse against a nine-year old child, a caseworker and police officer decided to interview the child at school, without parental consent or a warrant. After the charges against the child's father, Mr. Greene, were dropped, the child’s mother, Mrs. Greene, sued the caseworker and officer for violating her daughter's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search or seizure, arguing that probable cause is a necessary prerequisite to interviewing children about their alleged sexual abuse because such interviews may cause irreparable harm to the children when the allegations are unfounded. The caseworker and officer argue that reasonableness is the proper standard because it would be difficult to obtain probable cause when the child is often the only witness to the abuse. The Court's decision will likely clarify whether probable cause or reasonableness is the proper standard for interviewing a child who is the alleged victim of abuse without parental consent.
1. The state received a report that a nine-year-old child was being abused by her father at home. A child protection caseworker and law enforcement officer went to the child's school to interview her. To assess the constitutionality of that interview, the Ninth Circuit applied the traditional warrant/warrant-exception requirements that apply to seizures of suspected criminals. Should the Ninth Circuit, as other circuits have done, instead have applied the balancing standard that this Court has identified as the appropriate standard when a witness is temporarily detained?
2. The Ninth Circuit addressed the constitutionality of the interview in order to provide "guidance to those charged with the difficult task of protecting child welfare within the confines of the Fourth Amendment[,]" and it thus articulated a rule that will apply to all future child-abuse investigations. Is the Ninth Circuit's constitutional ruling reviewable, notwithstanding that it ruled in petitioner's favor on qualified immunity grounds?
Does the Fourth Amendment require a warrant, a court order, parental consent, or exigent circumstances before law enforcement and child welfare officials may conduct a temporary seizure and interview at a public school of a child whom they reasonably suspect was being sexually abused by her father?
1. Prior to questioning a child regarding possible sexual abuse, must law enforcement agents first obtain a warrant, or are they permitted to proceed without a warrant, provided that the public interest in conducting the investigation outweighs any impact that the questioning has on the liberties of the individual?
2. Is the Supreme Court authorized to review the legal basis of a lower court opinion that objected to the petitioners’ actions, even though the court ultimately decided in favor of the petitioners on qualified immunity grounds?
In 2003, Nimrod Greene was arrested after F.S., a seven-year old child, informed his parents and investigators that Mr. Greene had inappropriately touched him twice. See Greene v. Camreta, 588 F.3d 1011, 1016 (9th Cir. 2009). In connection with the ensuing investigation, F.S.'s mother told investigators that Mr. Greene's wife, Sarah Greene, said that she did not like her daughters, S.G. and K.G., to be in Mr. Greene's bed when he was drunk, nor did she approve of his behavior when her daughters sat in his lap. See id. When Bob Camreta, a caseworker with the Oregon Department of Human Services ("DHS"), learned of these statements and that Mr. Greene was having unsupervised contact with S.G and K.G, he visited S.G., a nine-year old girl, at school to interview her in a private room, in a place where she felt safe, and away from her parents and their potential influence. See id. at 1016–17. Conducting sexual abuse interviews at school is common practice and consistent with DHS training and rules. See id.
Camreta did not obtain a court order or warrant before interviewing S.G. See Greene, 588 F.3d at 1017. Deputy Sheriff James Alford was present for the interview, but did not ask S.G. any questions. See id. Camreta claims that S.G. told him that Mr. Greene began to touch her when she was three, that Mrs. Greene knew about the touching, and that S.G. told him to stop and locked herself in her room. See id. S.G. claims that she said in the interview that Mr. Greene did not inappropriately touch her, but that Camreta kept asking the same questions so she eventually began to say “yes” to each question. See id.
Camreta believed that S.G. was abused, so he and Deputy Sheriff Alford visited the Greene family at home. See Greene, 588 F.3d at 1018. Mr. and Mrs. Greene agreed to a safety plan that prohibited unsupervised contact between Mr. Greene and S.G. and K.G. and required a sexual abuse examination of S.G. See id. The Greenes obtained counsel after Mr. Greene was indicted for six counts of felony sexual assault. See id. Camreta went to the Greenes' home to inform Mrs. Greene of a no-contact order and assess compliance. See id. Although Mrs. Greene claims that she said she would comply with the order, Camreta claims that Mrs. Greene said she was financially unable to comply and would not sign a release for S.G.'s examination. See id.
Camreta sought and obtained an order to place S.G. and K.G in protective custody. See Greene, 588 F.3d at 1018–19. Mrs. Greene went to the KIDS Center to attend K.G. and S.G.'s examinations but the staff excluded her from the premises, allegedly due to Camreta's orders. See id. at 1019. During her exam, S.G. claimed that Mr. Greene had not abused her. See id. The examinations of S.G. and K.G. were inconclusive, though the examiners were still concerned that Mr. Greene was abusing the girls and that S.G. recanted her statement so that she could go home. See id. at 1019–20. Mr. Greene went to trial, but the jury could not reach a verdict; rather than go to retrial, Mr. Greene entered an Alford plea for the charges of abuse of F.S. by stating that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find him guilty, though he maintains his innocence. See id. at 1020. The charges for abuse of S.G. were dropped. See id.
Mrs. Greene filed this suit alleging that S.G.'s interview at school violated the Fourth Amendment because Camreta and Alford did not rely on a warrant, probable cause, parental consent, or exigent circumstances. See Greene, 588 F.3d at 1020. Mrs. Greene also alleged that Camreta and the KIDS Center violated the Fourteenth Amendment by using false information to remove S.G. and K.G. from the Greenes' home and by excluding Mrs. Greene from her daughters' examinations. See id. The district court granted summary judgment to Camreta and Alford on the grounds of qualified immunity. See id. at 1016. The Ninth Circuit determined that the investigation and examinations violated the Greenes' constitutional rights, but affirmed the dismissal of the Fourth Amendment claim on qualified immunity grounds. See id. at 1016, 1020–21. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the Fourth Amendment issue on October 12, 2010. See Camreta v. Greene, 131 S. Ct. 456 (2010); Alford v. Greene, 131 S. Ct. 457 (2010).
The Supreme Court will decide whether a warrant is required, in the absence of parental consent, to interview children who are the alleged victims of sexual abuse. Greene argues that Camreta and Alford violated S.G.’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure by seizing S.G. and interviewing her alone in a room without a court order, warrant, parental consent, or exigent circumstances. See Brief for Respondent, Sarah Greene at 43. Greene contends the interview was unreasonable because there had been no report that Mr. Greene had abused S.G.; F.S.’s mother simply told investigators that Mrs. Greene made statements to her, which, if true, might indicate abuse of S.G. See id. at 50–51. Camreta and Alford argue that the interview of S.G. was a reasonable seizure because the government has a substantial interest in protecting against child abuse and that this interest outweighs S.G.'s privacy interest. See Brief for Petitioner Bob Camreta at 10–11; Brief for Petitioner James Alford at 35–36.
Both sides agree that protecting children from harm is important, but they dispute the best way to do so. Greene contends that "overzealous" investigators may cause irreparable harm by questioning children where no abuse exists. See Brief for Respondent at 51–52. In order to prevent this harm, Greene contends that probable cause is the appropriate threshold for conducting child abuse interrogations of children because it protects against an unreasonable invasion of privacy while still allowing for adequate investigation. See id. at 56. The Legal Aid Society agrees that probable cause is the appropriate standard because it allows for judicial review of DHS decisions and would limit the damage caused by overreacting caseworkers. See Brief for Amicus Curiae Legal Aid Society in Support of Respondent at 2, 14.
Camreta claims that child abuse is a "national epidemic," and notes that victims of child abuse are more likely to abuse others, commit violent crimes, and develop drug or alcohol addictions, and that child abuse and neglect costs the government over $104 billion each year. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 24–25. As a result, argues Camreta, the government has a compelling interest in protecting children from abuse. See id. at 25. The United States agrees and is concerned that the Ninth Circuit's ruling may implicate federal laws that permit interviews without probable cause or parental consent of Native American children on reservations when authorities believe the child is a victim of abuse. See Brief for Amicus Curiae the United States in Support of Petitioners at 14.
Obtaining Probable Cause
Camreta argues that it is difficult to obtain probable cause before interviewing an alleged victim because abuse occurs "behind closed doors." See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 27. Forty states and Washington D.C. contend that requiring probable cause would impede investigations into child abuse, thereby undermining the states' compelling interest in preventing abuse. See Brief for Amici Curiae Arizona, et al. in Support of Petitioners at 30. These states claim that generally only the victim is witness to the abuse, so it can be impossible to substantiate allegations of abuse without first interviewing the child. See id. Since allegations of abuse are hearsay and probable cause cannot be based on hearsay, these states assert that this would only complicate child abuse investigations. See id. at 31.
Greene disagrees that probable cause is difficult to obtain because investigators may interview teachers, other family members, neighbors, and the person who reported the abuse. See Brief for Respondent at 61. Interrogations of children may yield unreliable and false information and do not always aid in child abuse investigations, Greene argues. See id. at 89. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL"), several states already require warrants prior to custodial interrogation of children and there is no evidence that the warrant requirements result in increased child abuse. See Brief for Amici Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, et al. in Support of Respondents at 36–37. NACDL argues that requiring probable cause would minimize errors and prevent the harm inflicted on children when they are erroneously questioned about suspected abuse. See id. at 38.
Greene claims that the interests of parents in the care and control of their children is a fundamental liberty interest and that parents should have the right to refuse custodial interrogation of their children if there is no court order, warrant, or exigency. See Brief for Respondent at 66. Forty states disagree; they argue that assuming parents will protect their children is contradicted by the fact that many parents are the perpetrators of abuse on their children and that there is no guarantee that a parent will act in his child's best interest. See Brief for Arizona, et al. at 34.
Warrants vs. the Reasonableness Standard
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable seizures and prevents law enforcement officers from obtaining a warrant without first showing probable cause. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. Petitioner Bob Camreta contends that while the Fourth Amendment requires that all seizures be reasonable, it does not always require a warrant. See Brief for Petitioner Bob Camreta at 16–17. Whether a seizure is reasonable, Camreta claims, is determined by balancing the degree to which the seizure interferes with an individual’s privacy with the extent to which the seizure furthers government interests. See id. at 15.
Camreta claims that the Supreme Court has applied the reasonableness balancing test and rejected a probable cause requirement where, as here, the seizure is less invasive than an arrest. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 17–18. Camreta relies on the Court’s holding in Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419 (2004), in arguing that the balancing test applies to the seizure of potential witnesses. See id. at 19–20. Camreta claims that the Court used the reasonableness test in Lidster because the police conducted questioning solely to obtain information. See id. at 20. Petitioner James Alford echoes this argument, stating that a warrant requirement is irrelevant where police activity is not focused on a suspect. See Brief for Petitioner Alford at 24.
Respondent Sarah Greene contends that there is no case law to support Camreta’s claim that a warrant is unnecessary where there is no risk of imprisonment. See Brief for Respondent, Sarah Greene at 55. Greene contends that Supreme Court precedent requires probable cause when law enforcement officers detain an individual for the purpose of investigation. See id. at 57. Greene claims that the Court has not required a warrant only when the police activity involves a brief stop as compared to more prolonged detentions. See id. at 59–60.
While acknowledging that the Supreme Court applied the reasonableness standard in Lidster, Greene maintains that Camreta and Alford fail to distinguish the present case. See Brief for Respondent at 65–66. Greene argues that in Lidster, the Court relaxed the Fourth Amendment requirements because the police activity involved stopping individuals in public places and asking them a few questions for about ten to fifteen seconds. See id. at 63–64. Greene argues that the Court’s holding in Lidster recognized that vehicle checkpoints do not present serious risks of intrusive questioning or cause the stopped individual great stress. See id. Finally, Greene argues that the Supreme Court has distinguished Fourth Amendment cases that involve vehicle searches. See id. at 65.
Application of the Reasonableness Standard
Camreta states that in applying a reasonableness test, courts will balance the magnitude of the public interest fulfilled by the seizure, the extent to which the seizure serves the public interest, and the effect of the seizure on the individual. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 18. Camreta contends that the first factor is met because the government has a strong interest in investigating and preventing child abuse. See id. at 25. As a result of the seriousness of the issue, Alford agrees that such strong public concerns support the State’s ability to temporarily hold children in school for questioning. See Brief for Petitioner Alford at 39.
Greene counters that, even if a reasonableness balancing test were the appropriate standard, the seizure was unreasonable. See Brief for Respondent at 79. Greene claims that the interrogation did not serve any public interest. See id. at 89. Rather, Greene contends that the type of questioning at issue here produces undependable information and disserves the public interest by potentially traumatizing children and destroying families. See id.
With regard to the second element of the balancing test, Alford contends that the seizure advanced the public interest because in-person interviews with children are the best means to uncover abuse. See Brief for Petitioner Alford at 40. Alford states that these conversations must occur apart from parents, who may be the abusers. See id. at 41. Additionally, Camreta claims that law enforcement agents must commence investigations prior to any finding of probable cause because child abuse often occurs in private. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 27. Camreta argues that the magnitude of the government’s interest requires swift action and that law enforcement’s inability to secure a warrant cannot justify delay. See id.
Greene disagrees with Camreta’s argument that the State need not obtain the parents’ consent prior to questioning a child. See Brief for Respondent at 68. Absent any evidence that parents are unable or poorly suited to make decisions on behalf of their child, Greene maintains that the courts and law enforcement agents ought to respect parental discretion. See id. Greene contends that there is also no reason to assume that parents will not properly handle potentially abusive situations, stating that over ninety percent of parents permit child welfare workers to speak with their children. See id. at 69.
Finally, with regard to the rights of the individual, Camreta contends that there is a “reduced expectation of privacy” in public school settings. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 31. At school, Camreta states that students are subject to the authority of the State and the school is entitled to question students, either through school employees or non-school officials. See id. Camreta also notes that the majority of states have laws that require teachers to report any suspicion of child abuse. See id. at 33.
Greene claims that the Supreme Court has never provided that parental consent is assumed in the public school setting or that law enforcement agents are entitled to disregard a child’s rights. See Brief for Respondent at 76. Greene adds that subjecting a young girl to questioning by two men regarding sensitive matters constituted a severe interference with her child’s liberty. See id. at 83.
“Special Needs” Doctrine
Alford contends that even if the Court finds the reasonableness test inapplicable and the Lidster holding irrelevant, the seizure fits within a special category of “special needs” cases. See Brief for Petitioner Alford at 25. This line of cases provides that when special needs exist, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements become unnecessary. See id. In general, Alford notes, the State’s interest in enforcing the law does not constitute a special need. See id. Alford explains that special needs involve situations in which the government attempts to avoid real and concrete harms, such as child abuse. See id. at 28–29. Once a special need is identified, Alford contends that the courts must then balance the interests of the state with the seizure’s effect on the individual’s rights, a test that favors the government’s interest in preventing child abuse. See id. at 32. Camreta agrees that the special needs doctrine applies and faults the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to apply the doctrine based on its finding that law enforcement was the State’s primary interest in questioning S.G. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 36–37. Camreta relies on Lidster, arguing that where there is little risk of self-incrimination, law enforcement goals are immaterial. See id. at 37.
Greene agrees with the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the special needs doctrine is inapplicable because law enforcement served as the primary purpose of the seizure. See Brief for Respondent at 71. Greene argues that Camreta fails to provide case law to support his claim that law enforcement goals are not determinative where there is only a slight risk of self-incrimination. See id. at 74. And Greene faults Camreta’s reliance on Lidster, arguing that the Court’s holding was based on several factors other than that law enforcement officers sought information and were not targeting a suspect. See id.
Camreta urges the Supreme Court to review the Fourth Amendment issue presented by this case, despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit ruled in Camreta’s favor on qualified immunity grounds. See Brief for Petitioner Camreta at 41. Although the Supreme Court does not typically grant certiorari to parties that succeeded in the lower court, Camreta urges the Court to review the case because the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on the Fourth Amendment issue will serve as precedent to other courts addressing child abuse investigations. See id. at 42–43.
Greene contends that the Supreme Court may not review the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the seizure was unconstitutional because it was not part of the judgment. See Brief for Respondent at 24. Additionally, Greene argues that Alford and Camreta are not permitted to seek such review because, as the party that won in the lower court, they may not appeal. See id. at 25. And because S.G. has not sought review of the Fourth Amendment ruling, Greene contends that the argument is moot and thus there is no case or controversy. See id. at 28. Moreover, Greene contends that Camreta and Alford lack standing to even raise such an argument because the harm they focus on affects only the State and the County. See id. at 31.
The Court’s decision will clarify whether probable cause or a lower standard of reasonableness is required, in the absence of parental consent, before social services may interview a child who is the alleged victim of abuse. Probable cause may help provide a check on social services investigations and protect the privacy interests of the family and child, while a reasonableness standard may facilitate child abuse investigations where probable cause cannot be obtained without interviewing the child. If the Court decides that the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant prior to interviewing a purported victim of child abuse, several states and the federal government will have to change their social services practices and policy.
Edited by: Eric Johnson
· Wex: Fourth Amendment
· Associated Press: Court: Do In-School Interviews Require Warrants? (Oct. 12, 2010)