©2011 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com) 2011 U.S. Supreme Court Camreta v. Greene
On May 26, 2011, the United States Supreme Court decided Camreta v. Greene et al., [i] and vacated a decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which had effectively required child protective service officers to obtain warrants in order to interview victims of child abuse, absent parental consent. The facts of Camreta are as follows:
In February 2003, police arrested Nimrod Greene for suspected sexual abuse of a young boy unrelated to him. During the investigation of that offense, the boy’s parents told police that they suspected Greene of molesting his 9-year-old daughter S.G. The police reported this information to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which assigned petitioner Bob Camreta, a child protective services caseworker, to assess S.G.’s safety. Several days later, Camreta, accompanied by petitioner James Alford, a Deschutes County deputy sheriff, went to S.G.’s elementary school and interviewed her about the allegations. Camreta and Alford did not have a warrant, nor had they obtained parental consent to conduct the interview. Although S. G. at first denied that her father had molested her, she eventually stated that she had been abused. Greene was indicted and stood trial for sexually abusing S.G., but the jury failed to reach a verdict and the charges were later dismissed. [ii]
Sarah Greene, S.G.’s mother, sued Camreta and Alford on her behalf under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly violating S.G.’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from an unreasonable seizure. The District Court granted summary judgment for all defendants in the case. S.G. appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals held that the officers violated S.G.’s Fourth Amendment rights when they seized and interrogated her without a warrant, absent court order, exigent circumstances, or parental consent. However, the court granted the officers qualified immunity from suit because there was not clearly established law that put the officers on notice that their conduct was illegal. In deciding the case, the court of appeals said that it wanted to “provide guidance to those charged with the difficult task of protecting child welfare within the confines of the Fourth Amendment.” [iii] Specifically, the court of appeals stated
[G]overnment officials investigating allegations of child abuse should cease operating on the assumption that a ‘special need’ automatically justifies dispensing with traditional Fourth Amendmentprotections in this context. [iv]
Camreta and Alford then petitioned the United States Supreme Court to grant certiorari to hear the case. The Supreme Court granted certioriari.
The two issues before the Court were as follows:
May government officials who prevail on grounds of qualified immunity obtain the Supreme Court’s review of a court of appeals’ decision that the officials conduct violated the Constitution?
If the first issue is answered affirmatively, did the Ninth Circuit correctly decide that the interview in this case violated the Fourth Amendment?
In addressing the first issue, the Supreme Court discussed their authority to adjudicate legal disputes under the Constitution. First, the litigants must have a personnel stake in case that remains an issue when the Supreme Court hears the case. In this case, the Supreme Court noted that the government officials do still have a present stake in this case, even though they have been awarded qualified immunity from the lawsuit. Their “stake” comes from the fact that the Ninth Circuit’s decision has greatly impacted how child welfare workers and police officers perform their duties, since these officials must now comply with this now “clearly established” law. As such, future violations of the holding would likely result in a denial of qualified immunity since the law had been clearly established.
The court also discussed the fact that they typically decline to hear a case at the request of the prevailing party. However, the Court stated that in certain types of cases such as this case, they may choose to depart from their normal practice. Specifically, the Court stated
We think just such a reason places qualified immunity cases in a special category when it comes to this Court’s review of appeals brought by winners. The constitutional determinations that prevailing parties ask us to consider in these cases are not mere dicta or “statements in opinions.” They are rulings that have a significant future effect on the conduct of public officials — both the prevailing parties and their co-workers — and the policies of the government units to which they belong. And more: they are rulings self-consciously designed to produce this effect, by establishing controlling law and preventing invocations of immunity in later cases. And still more: they are rulings designed this way with this Court’s permission, to promote clarity — and observance — of constitutional rules. We describe in more detail below these features of the qualified immunity world and why they came to be. We hold that taken together, they support bending our usual rule to permit consideration of immunized officials’ petitions. [v] [internal citations omitted]
When applying the above standard to the facts of this case, the Supreme Court noted that the Ninth Circuit specifically made their ruling in Camreta in order to provide instruction to government officials regarding future in-school interviews of child sexual abuse victims, that ruling has far reaching policy impacts on public official (child welfare workers and law enforcement officers), and the rule could result in preventing immunity in future cases.
Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the decision is reviewable even though Camreta prevailed on qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court then sought to clarify the limits of their holding on the first issue in this case. The Court stated:
We emphasize, however, two limits of today’s holding. First, it addresses only our own authority to review cases in this procedural posture. The Ninth Circuit had no occasion to consider whether it could hear an appeal from an immunized official: In that court, after all, S.G. appealed the judgment in the officials’ favor. We therefore need not and do not decide if an appellate court, too, can entertain an appeal from a party who has prevailed on immunity grounds. Second, our holding concerns only what this Court may review; what we actually will choose to review is a different matter. That choice will be governed by the ordinary principles informing our decision whether to grant certiorari — a “power [we] . . . sparingly exercis[e].” [vi]
Having determined that they can choose to review case brought forward by the prevailing party, the Supreme Court then examined S.G.’s stake in this case. S.G. now lives in Florida and is only months away from her 18th birthday. She stated that she does not intend to return to Oregon. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that S.G. has “not the slightest possibility” of being seized and subjected to an interview while in school. [vii] The Court stated
When subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur, we have no live controversy to review. [viii] [Internal citations and quotations omitted]
Thus, the case is moot and the Supreme Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
Since the Supreme Court determined that they do not have jurisdiction to hear the case, they had to decide what to do regarding the second issue. To review, the second issue is very important because dealt with whether or not the officers violated the Constitution when they conducted a warrantless interview of the alleged child sex-abuse victim in school. The Supreme Court stated:
When a civil suit becomes moot pending appeal, we have the authority to “direct the entry of such appropriate judgment, decree, or order, or require such further proceedings to be had as may be just under the circumstances.” 28 U.S.C. § 2106. Our “established” (though not exceptionless) practice in this situation is to vacate the judgment below. [ix]
This is done out of fairness to the party that cannot have the court address their controversy. The court stated the rule as follows:
A party who seeks review of the merits of an adverse ruling, but is frustrated by the vagaries of circumstance, we have emphasized, ought not in fairness be forced to acquiesce in that ruling. The equitable remedy of vacatur ensures that those who have been prevented from obtaining the review to which they are entitled [are] not . . . treated as if there had been a review. [x] [internal citations and quotations omitted]
In other words, the Court states that it would be unfair to fail to decide the merits of the case because some unforeseeable circumstance renders a case unreviewable. Thus, court looks to apply an equitable remedy. As such, the ruling of the Ninth Circuit, to the extent that it ruled the officers violated the Fourth Amendment, is vacated.
This ruling does not mean that the interview conducted in Camreta was constitutional. Rather, it means that the portion of the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Camreta regarding S.G.’s interview is vacated and no longer binding case law. The law is again not clearly established in regard to future conduct.
Government officials should remember that they are still bound by the specific laws of their state that govern conduct during interviews with juveniles.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 09-1454, 09-1478, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 4016
[ii] Id. at 11
[iii] Id. at 13
[iv] Id. (quoting Camreta v. Green, 588 F.3d 1011, 1033 (9th Cir. 2009))
[v] Id. at 20-21
[vi] Id. at 28
[vii] Id. at 32
[ix] Id. at 34-35
[x] Id. at 35