Vol. 26 No. 13 Camreta V. Greene Vacated By U.S. Supreme Court

To: All Police Chiefs and Sheriffs

From: Martin J. Mayer, Esq.

Camreta v. Greene Vacated by U.S. Supreme Court

June 10, 2011

On May 26, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the case of Camreta v. Greene, that even though the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had granted qualified immunity from civil liability to the defendants and, even though the underlying issue was now moot, the decision could still be reviewed by the Court. The Court stated that it “generally may review a lower courts constitutional ruling at the behest of government officials who have won final judgment on qualified immunity grounds.”

The case involved an unusual set of circumstances. “Nearly a decade ago, petitioner Camreta, a state child protective services worker, and petitioner Alford, 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.”

Subsequently, S. G.s mother, sued Camreta and Alford on S G.s behalf for damages under 42 U. S. C. 1983, alleging that the in-school interview breached the Fourth Amendments proscription on unreasonable seizures. She claimed that taking the child out of the class to find out if she was being abused required a warrant, court order, parental consent, or exigent circumstances. (A classic example of “no good deed goes unpunished.”)

The District Court granted summary judgment to the officials on the issue of qualified immunity and the Ninth Circuit affirmed but also stated that it was unconstitutional to interview the child under those circumstances.

Although the judgment entered was in their favor, Camreta and Alford petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuits ruling that their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment.

Court’s Ruling

The Court stated that its “prudential practice of declining to hear appeals by prevailing parties does not bar consideration of immunized officials petitions. The Court has recognized exceptions to this prudential rule when there has been a “policy reaso[n] . . . of sufficient importance to allow an appeal” by the winner below. Just such a reason exists in qualified immunity cases. The constitutional rulings that prevailing parties ask the Court to consider in these cases have a significant future effect on the conduct of public officials and the policies of the government units to which they belong.”

The Court noted that the underlying issue was “moot” since the interview occurred nine years earlier; S.G. had moved to Florida and has no plans to return to Oregon; that she was now seventeen or eighteen years old and, therefore, had no ongoing stake in the litigation. She no longer needed protection from the allegedly unconstitutional behavior. The Supreme Court stated that its ordinary practice when a case becomes moot while appeal is pending is vacatur, and it followed that course in this case.

The rationale behind vacating judgments of cases that are moot on appeal is to ensure that when a party has sought review, but cannot receive it, the decision will not be treated as if there had been a review. The practice also prevents unreviewable decisions from having legal consequences. Vacatur rightly “strips the decision below of its binding effect, and clears “the path for future relitigation.” Because mootness has frustrated Camretas ability to challenge the Ninth Circuits ruling that he must obtain a warrant before interviewing a suspected child abuse victim at school, “that part of the Ninth Circuits decision must be vacated.”


As a result of the Supreme Court vacating the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the law remains as it was before the decision by the Ninth Circuit. In other words, there is no court decision which states that an officer is unconstitutionally seizing a child when, without a warrant, court order, parental consent, or exigent circumstances, he/she takes the child out of a classroom to try and find out if the child is the victim of abuse.

It must be noted, however, that since there is no case law on this issue, it is still subject to future litigation. As the Court said, the vacating of the lower court’s decision clears “the path for future relitigation.” As such, as with most legal situations, it is important to secure and follow the advice of your agency’s legal counsel when a situation such as this one arises. It seems almost inevitable that another lawsuit of this nature will arise in the future.

As always, if you have any questions regarding his matter, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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