Camreta v. Greene, involves parental rights as seen through the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Well, sort of. That’s what the issue was at the district court level. By the time it arrived in the Supreme Court it was a different matter. Not only was the matter moot, but there was no case or controversy, a virtual requirement for any court to hear a matter.
Bob Camreta is a child protective services caseworker in central Oregon. He heard through the rumor mill that a father had been sexually abusing his daughter. Camreta, along with a county deputy sheriff, went to the elementary school where the 9-year-old girl was enrolled to interview her. She denied that her father was abusing her, but after persistent questioning from Camreta (the time is disputed, but the court determined it was 2 hours), she finally acquiesced. The interview occurred at the school without a warrant, probable cause, exigent circumstances, and without the permission of her parents. Her father was charged eventually, but the charges were dropped after a jury could not come to a verdict. Her mother filed suit against Camreta and the sheriff’s deputy, James Alford.
The Supreme Court doesn’t get into too many of the details because it focuses on the technical issues of precedent, whether the case is moot, and why it accepted it in the first place. But the point remains, what the Court did will have an effect on the control of parents over their children when the government decides to get involved.
According to the background facts in the case below, “Camreta thought the school would be a good place for the interview because it is a place where children feel safe and would allow him ‘to conduct the interview away from the potential influence of suspects, including parents.’” What didn’t occur to Camreta is that when you remove children from a classroom the other students want to know why. It’s embarrassing, it’s noticeable, and it causes emotional turmoil without the added pressure of being interviewed for two hours.
“Throughout the interview Camreta was accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Alford.” Alford never participated in the interview and remained silent throughout the entire two hours. His uniform included a visible firearm. You have to wonder why he was there. The facts in the case never reveal an answer to that question. It’s bad enough to have your children interviewed by an unknown government representative who is asking questions about you as a parent, but to have a law enforcement officer present gives an added sense of danger, fear, and intimidation. It’s evident in the remaining facts.
“Upon arriving at the school, Camreta told school officials that he and Alford were there to interview [the child] and requested use of a private office. Terry Friesen, a counselor at the elementary school, visited [the child] in her classroom and told the child that someone was there to talk with her. Friesen took [the girl] to the room where Camreta and Alford were waiting and left.” Later, when telling her mother of the incident, the child “stated that she was “scared” when Friesen left her with Camreta and Alford, although she did not ask to call home, did not ask to have Friesen or her parents with her, and did not cry.”
Parents have a right to know about the qualifications of a teacher in a public school; they have a right to know about how a physician is treating their children; and they have a right to be informed by law enforcement if the child has allegedly committed a delinquent act. Surely, parents have the right to be notified that a government official is talking to your child – about YOU! But that’s not the way it is, according to the recent decision.
The federal district court granted summary judgment to Camreta and Alford as it pertained to the girl’s Fourth Amendment claims (the mother sued on behalf of her child). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s summary judgment on the basis of the qualified immunity. Here comes the strange part. Camreta and Alford are the prevailing parties to this suit, yet they appealed the Circuit Court’s decision to the United States Supreme Court. Stranger yet, the SCOTUS granted certiorari (a writ whereby the High Court accepts to hear a case from a court below).
It’s unheard of for the winner in a lawsuit to appeal. However, it has happened, as the Court pointed out in two cases. But the successful parties who appealed in those two cases were appealing the judgments. As Justice Kennedy explained in his dissent, a party may have been asking for $1,000 in damages and received only $500. That can be appealed. But in this case, the prevailing party is appealing what is known as dicta. Dicta (the plural), or dictum, is not legally binding. It’s just a writer’s (judge or justice) reasoning or editorializing. Nonetheless, this is what got a few justices’ ire up.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did exactly what it was supposed to do, and the SCOTUS agreed. So why did it have to hear the moot case to decide that it didn’t like what the 9th Circuit did? It’s not a case that is going to be plastered all over every daily newspaper in the county, but it’s so strange that even the strange Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in the opinion of the majority by saying: “I join the Court’s opinion, which reasonably applies our precedents, strange though they may be.”
In its opinion, the 9th Circuit didn’t stop at granting qualified immunity, it provided dictum that “government officials investigating allegations of child abuse should cease operating on the assumption that a “special need” automatically justifies dispensing with traditional Fourth Amendment protections” as it did in this case.
So, what does this mean? I’m not an attorney, a law professor, or a government teacher, but I think it means that the Court wanted to take away the 9th Circuit’s hand-slapping it did to government officials who try to push the envelope right up to the ledge of qualified immunity. Government officials can step over that edge, and they have. In this case they didn’t. The United States Supreme Court wanted to make sure that the finger pointing was taken away. It’s sort of like a judge saying “the jury will disregard that comment.”
Meanwhile, Camreta will continue to improperly interview children. Alford no longer works for the DeShultes County Sheriff’s Department.