High court tosses ruling on interviewing children

May 26, 2011 - 11:12 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Thursday threw out a lower court's ruling that authorities need warrants to talk to potential victims of sex abuse at school, without saying whether it thought the earlier decision was wrong.

The high court tossed out the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of a 9-year-old who was interviewed by a social worker and a police officer at school in Oregon because they suspected that she was being abused by her father. The girl is now nearing her 18th birthday and living in Florida.

The challenge to a court ruling that affects children in Oregon is moot because the girl, known in court papers as S.G., would no longer be affected by its outcome, Justice Elena Kagan said in the 7-2 decision.

"She faces not the slightest possibility of being seized in a school in the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation," Kagan said. "When 'subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the alleged wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,' we have no live controversy to review."

Because the case is moot, the Ninth Circuit's decision forcing child social worker Bob Camreta and other authorities to get warrants also is moot, Kagan said. "The happenstance of S.G.'s moving across country and becoming an adult has deprived Camreta of his appeal rights," she said.

Camreta and a police officer interviewed S.G at the child's public school so that her father wouldn't be present. The girl said during the interview that she had been sexually abused by her father. She later recanted the statements.

Charges against her father were dropped.

But the girl's mother sued, saying her daughter had been unconstitutionally seized at school because she was removed from her classroom, taken into another room and questioned.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying the social worker and police officer should have gotten a warrant, a court order or parental consent before talking to the child, or should have demonstrated that they acted with probable cause and under exigent circumstances. But it also ruled that Camreta and the police officer had immunity from damages resulting from the lawsuit, saying no clearly established law warned them of the illegality of their conduct.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined Kagan in her judgment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they would have dismissed the case because Camreta and the police officer won when the court said they had immunity from damages.

The cases are Camreta v. Greene, 09-1451 and Alford v. Greene, 09-1478.