Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Supreme Court to Address Fourth Amendment Issues Presented by Child Abuse Interviews

The Supreme Court granted review in three criminal law-related cases. One in particular has caught my eye. Here is the summary from our friends at SCOTUSBLOG:

A deputy sheriff and a state social caseworker took the issue of child interviews to the Court in a pair of cases, Camreta v. Greene, et al. (09-1454) and Alford v. Greene, et al. (09-1478); the Court consolidated the cases for one hour of oral argument, probably in January or February.  The appeals argue that, because the details of child sex abuse are known only to the victim and the perpetrator, police may not have sufficient evidence to support a warrant, so they need the authority to interview an alleged victim without the parents' presence — often, at school.  The Ninth Circuit Court required a warrant, if parents' consent is not obtained or there are no other "exigent circumstances."


In the Greene case, a social worker accompanied by a sheriff's deputy visited the child's elementary school to conduct an interview about alleged sexual abuse. The parent of the child did not consent to the interview and, in fact, was not even informed. The caseworker did not obtain a warrant or other court order before the interview. There is some dispute about the exact nature of the conversation. Later, the caseworker helped to obtain a court order removing the child from the residence, and the child was subsequently interviewed at a forensic center.


Although this case comes before the court on a qualified immunity issue, it presents a solid opportunity to address the balance between the rights of parents and law enforcement. This case seems to raise two issues:


One, is the interview of a child at school a seizure? In the Ninth Circuit, the government appeared to concede that the interview of the child was a seizure. However, the cert. petitions back off this a bit, and at least one amicus curiae brief directly challenged this conclusion. I suspect that this might become the most important part of the case, nonetheless, and I am curious to see how it is briefed by all sides.


Two, if the interview is a seizure, what circumstances can justify the seizure without a warrant? This issue raises a number of concerns, including whether the fact that the interview took place in a school leads to a more lenient Fourth Amendment analysis. This case presents a good opportunity for the Court to expound more on the "special needs" exception to the warrant requirement. Again, I will be watching to see if the government entities urge that all child abuse investigations present a special needs exception applicable to all child abuse investigations, or if the arguments focus more on the particular facts of this case. A focus more on the facts of this case allows that Court to rule that the exigent circumstances of this particular case justified the interview, without addressing broader questions posed by child abuse investigations.


These are my preliminary thoughts on this case. I look forward to posting more developed ideas later.

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