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SCOTUS Throws Out 9th Circuit Decision on Child Interrogations

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on June 01, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on 4th Amendment rights that mandated authorities to obtain warrants prior to talking to potential child victims regarding child abuse questions.

According to The Associated Press, the decision involved a case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a 9-year old girl was asked child abuse questions by a social worker and a police officer in an Oregon school after suspicion that she was being abused by her father. The case began in 2003, when police arrested the girl's father on suspicion that he had sexually abused a young boy. At that time, according to the Los Angeles Times, the boy's parents said that they suspected that the man had also abused his own daughter.

The girl admitted to the interviewers that she had been abused at home. She subsequently recanted her story and the charges against her father were dropped. The girl's mother then brought suit for violation of her constitutional rights, alleging that her daughter was interviewed without permission and that she was refused permission to be present during the physical examinations of her daughter.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the 4th Amendment protections applied in such a case, where children were interrogated by police at school. This decision, of course, sparked controversy among child welfare advocates.

The 9th Circuit decision, however, was not thrown out by SCOTUS based on whether the interview was proper in light of the parent's 4th Amendment rights. Rather, the case was reviewed based on a fundamental principal of law: mootness.

The girl, now 18 years old, "faces not the slightest possibility of being seized in a school in the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation," Justice Elena Kagan said in the decision. "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."

There had been much opposition and criticism of the 9th Circuit ruling. As the Los Angeles Times reported, here was a coalition of school officials, state lawyers and members of the Obama administration all urging the Supreme Court to reject the decision.

It "threatens to eliminate an essential tool for the detection and prevention of child abuse," said Acting Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal.

While the 9th Circuit decision was not necessarily set aside on the merits, the Supreme Court nevertheless heard the coalition's cries and responded, albeit in a very coy way.

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