Vol. 25 No. 24 Camreta V. Greene Goes To The Supreme Court



  To:                 All Police Chiefs and Sheriffs

From:             Martin J. Mayer, Esq.



Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, in the Oregon case ofCamreta v. Greene, that a police officer could not interview a student at school regarding her possibly being the victim of child abuse without a warrant, probable cause, exigent circumstances or parental consent.

The court also suggested that a DHS caseworker must have a court order prior to interviewing a student at school, unless the parent consents to the interview – even when the parent is the suspected abuser.  However, the Ninth Circuit did grant qualified immunity to the officials since the issue was not clearly decided at the time.

On October 12, 2010, the United States Supreme Court accepted the Camreta case for review and vacated the decision of the

Ninth Circuit.  The Supreme Court will look at two issues:  (1) Whether the traditional warrant exception requirements that apply to seizures of suspected criminals should apply to an interview of the child in light of reports of child abuse, or whether instead a balancing standard should apply; and (2) whether the Ninth Circuit’s constitutional ruling is reviewable, notwithstanding that it ruled in the petitioner’s favor on qualified immunity grounds.

The decision by the Ninth Circuit created significant concerns for law enforcement officers when they were trying to determine if a child was in danger of abuse.  Many agencies no longer allowed officers to contact children at school under these circumstances for fear that they would be held liable.


A caseworker was notified of allegations regarding the sexual abuse of two children by their father. He was assigned to assess the girls’ safety. Upon learning that the father was being released from custody, he became concerned for the girls’ safety. He interviewed one of the girls at her elementary school without notifying the mother of the child, and a law enforcement officer was present for the interview.

The mother sued the caseworker and the law enforcement officer alleging a Fourth Amendment violation because the in-school interview was conducted without a warrant, parental consent, probable cause, or exigent circumstances. The mother’s claims against the school district and school counselor were dismissed.

Ninth Circuit Decision

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court held that the seizure was unlawful because it was not based on probable cause. The interview constituted a seizure, which must be reasonable to be lawful. Reasonableness depends on the evidence supporting the government’s desire to seize someone. Generally, the government must show enough evidence to create probable cause. The court held that a caseworker’s belief that the girls’ safety was in danger did not constitute probable cause.

Furthermore, the court held that the school-setting exception to the probable cause requirement does not apply when a caseworker and police officer seize a student in the school.  In the school setting, if a teacher or school official seizes a student to maintain discipline on school grounds, then the justification for the seizure can be something less than probable cause. However, the lower standard did not apply in this case because the students were not seized by teachers or school officials to maintain discipline on school grounds.

The girls’ mother, Sarah Greene, alleged that the caseworker, Bob Camreta, and deputy sheriff, James Alford, violated the Fourth Amendment when they seized and interrogated S.G. in a private office at her school for two hours without a warrant, probable cause, or parental consent. Sarah also argued that Camreta’s subsequent actions, both in securing a court order removing the girls from her custody and in subjecting the girls to intrusive sexual abuse examinations outside her presence, violated the Greenes’ familial rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit stated that “we hold . . .  that ‘the general law of search warrants applie[s] to child abuse investigations.’ Once the police have initiated a criminal investigation into alleged abuse in the home, responsible officials must provide procedural protections appropriate to the criminal context.  At least where there is, as here, direct involvement of law enforcement in an in-school seizure and interrogation of a suspected child abuse victim, we simply cannot say, as a matter of law, that she was seized for some “special need[ ], beyond the normal need for law enforcement.”

“In short, applying the traditional Fourth Amendment requirements, the decision to seize and interrogate S.G. in the absence of a warrant, a court order, exigent circumstances, or parental consent was unconstitutional.  We follow the lead of our sister circuits and hold that in the context of the seizure of a child pursuant to a child abuse investigation, a court order permitting the seizure of the child is the equivalent of a warrant.  (Citations omitted.)  We therefore reverse the district court to the extent that it held that Alford and Camreta had not violated S.G.’s right to be free from an unconstitutional seizure.”


The lower court’s decision has been vacated and, therefore, the law is as it had been prior to this decision.  However, even the Ninth Circuit had to acknowledge that the law was unclear and that is why it granted qualified immunity from civil liability to the caseworker and the deputy sheriff.  So the question still remains – is it OK to take a child from a classroom and interview him or her when there is concern that the child may be the victim of abuse?

In Camreta v. Greene, there were also issues of Camreta allegedly misrepresenting facts to secure a protective order and whether taking the child from her mother was justified.  Additionally, there were questions about the justification of excluding the child’s mother from the physical examination conducted on the child.  These issues were to be decided by a trial court.

Theoretically, since the lower court decision was vacated, it has no legal impact on how law enforcement can proceed at this time.  The gamble is what the Supreme Court will do with this question.  As such, it may be risky to interview a child under these circumstances and only each agency can make the decision of how to proceed.  Therefore, as in most situations, it is imperative that legal advice and guidance be secured from an agency’s counsel, before an issue of this nature arises, and a policy be adopted on how to handle it.

As always, if you wish to discuss this in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

Before relying on any of this material, confer with your agency’s legal counsel for advice and guidance

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