Supreme Court Tosses Child Welfare Fourth Amendment Case
Nearly a decade ago, a state child protective services worker and a county deputy sheriff interviewed then 9-year-old S.G. at her Oregon elementary school about allegations that her father had sexually abused her. They did not have a warrant or parental consent to conduct the interview. S.G. eventually stated that she had been abused. Her father stood trial for that abuse, but the jury failed to reach a verdict and the charges were later dismissed.
S.G.’s mother subsequently sued on S.G.’s behalf for damages under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that the in-school interview breached the Fourth Amendment ’s proscription on unreasonable seizures. The District Court granted summary judgment to the officials and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
The Court of Appeals first ruled that seizing S.G. absent a warrant, court order, parental consent, or exigent circumstances violated the Constitution. But the court further held that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity from damages liability because no clearly established law had warned them of the illegality of their conduct. The court explained that it had chosen to rule on the merits of the constitutional claim so that officials would be on notice that they could not dispense with traditional Fourth Amendment protections in this context.
This blog discussed this issue (but not this case) in an oft-visited 2005 post here.
In a very strange turn of events, the U.S. Supreme Court–which considered an appeal in this case–vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision concerning the applicability of the Fourth Amendment to child welfare “searches and seizures” but upheld qualified immunity for the defendant child protective services worker and county deputy sheriff.
In other words, the Court basically said that regardless of whether or not the Fourth Amendment applies in child welfare searches and seizures. the defendants had qualified immunity and could not be sued for interviewing S.G. without her parent’s permission. The Court refused to answer whether or not the Fourth Amendment applies to such interviews. That issue will await another day and another case to be decided by the Supreme Court.
The full decision can be found here.