The Legal Aid Society Files Amicus Brief in United States Supreme Court Case

The Juvenile Rights Practice is filing an Amicus Curiae brief in the United States Supreme Court today in connection with Camreta v. Greene, an appeal from a decision by the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals.

The issue the Supreme Court is being asked to decide is whether a child welfare agency caseworker, accompanied by a police officer who is involved in a related criminal investigation, may enter a child's school and then confine her in a room and question her about allegations that she has been abused or neglected by her parent, without first getting a court order permitting them to do so.

The Society's Amicus Curiae brief states: "We do not doubt the good faith of child welfare authorities. But under Fourth Amendment analysis, "special needs" arise not from noble motives, but from the need to take action unfettered by probable cause and warrant requirements. There is a special need to seize a child without a warrant when an informal interview suddenly yields information about abuse and the child would be in danger if she were allowed to go on her way. But there is no special need when there is ample time to get a court order authorizing a home entry, or the removal of a child for placement in foster care, or a physical examination for signs of sexual abuse, without exposing the child to danger. And, in this case, there was no special need when S.G. was seized three days after abuse allegations came to the attention of child protective authorities.

"Accordingly, we urge the Court to find that the seizure of S.G. violated the Fourth Amendment and affirm the decision below." The brief was submitted by Steven Banks, Counsel of Record, Tamara Steckler and Gary Solomon, Counsel for Amicus Curiae.

Oral argument in the Supreme Court is scheduled for March 1, 2011. The mother filed this § 1983 action alleging that the in-school seizure of the child S.G. violated the Fourth Amendment; that plaintiffs’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by the intentional presentation of false information to the Juvenile Court to obtain a removal order and by removal of the children from the mother’s care; and that plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when there was unreasonable interference with the mother’s right to be with her children, and with the children’s right to have their mother present, during an intrusive medical examination. The district court granted summary judgment to all defendants.

The Ninth Circuit affirms the district court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to S.G.’s Fourth Amendment claims. Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because, even assuming S.G. was kept for two hours in a closed room by a caseworker and a uniformed police officer carrying a firearm, defendants reasonably could have believed that the seizure was reasonable. However, the Court does conclude that the seizure was, in fact, unconstitutional. The Court is unwilling to create an across-the-board exception to traditional Fourth Amendment protections where a child happens to be seized at a public school rather than on private property. Although exigent circumstances do permit a caseworker to seize a child without a warrant if there is reasonable cause to believe the child is likely to experience serious bodily harm in the time that would be required to obtain a warrant, in this case defendants waited three days to detain and interrogate S.G. after receiving the initial report, and then returned her to her parents’ custody after the allegedly incriminating interview.

The Court reverses the grant of summary judgment on the claim that a defendant intentionally presented false information when, in an affidavit provided to the Juvenile Court, he stated that the mother had “indicated the family had no alternate resources for either the children or [the alleged abuser] to ensure there would be no contact.” There is no qualified immunity since the right to be free from such deception in securing a removal order was clearly established at the time of the alleged misrepresentations.

Again reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Court finds that the exclusion of the mother from her daughters’ physical examinations violated the mother's substantive due process right to be present, and the children's right to have their mother present when they faced potentially traumatic events. Parents cannot be excluded entirely from the location of their child’s physical examination absent parental consent, a legitimate basis for exclusion, or an emergency requiring immediate medical attention.

The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari in connection with the Ninth Circuit's ruling regarding the constitutionality of the seizure at S.G.'s school. Respondents have argued not only that the Ninth Circuit's ruling was correct, but also that the ruling is not reviewable.

The Legal Aid Society has filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of respondents.