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Justices to Weigh Police Questioning at School

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to take up a case involving the questioning of an elementary school student at school by a deputy sheriff and a state child-protective services caseworker about possible sexual abuse at home.

The justices accepted appeals from the two Oregon investigators of a federal appeals court ruling that they violated the student's Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizure when they interviewed her at school without a warrant, court order, parental consent, or exigent circumstances.

The case has implications for school searches of students and cooperation between school officials and law-enforcement authorities, although claims against the school district in this case were dismissed at an early stage.

The case involves events in February 2003 when the caseworker and deputy sheriff went to an elementary school (unidentified in court papers) to interview a nine-year-old girl whom they suspected might be a victim of sexual abuse by her father, who had been arrested a week before in the alleged abuse of a seven-year-old boy.

According to court papers, the investigators arrived at the school and explained they were there to interview the student and asked for a private room. A school counselor pulled the student, identified as S.G., from class. The investigators talked to her for some two hours. Later, the caseworker pursued the investigation and the father was indicted on sexual-abuse charges involving S.G., although the charges were later dismissed. (The father did plead guilty to charges stemming from the abuse of the seven-year-old boy.)

The girl's mother sued the caseworker and deputy sheriff over the interview that took place at school, as well as over later state actions in which her children were removed from her custody temporarily. The suit also named the Bend-La Pine school district in Oregon and the school counselor as defendants, but those claims were dismissed by a federal district court and were not challenged on appeal.

The federal district court had also upheld the seizure at school of S.G. by the caseworker and deputy sheriff. holding that it was "objectively reasonable."

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held in a December opinion that the school seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. The court said that the Supreme Court's 1985 decision on student searches by school officials, in New Jersey v. T.L.O., did not apply because the caseworker and deputy sheriff were not school officials.

The involvement of law enforcement officials in the interview raised "traditional" Fourth Amendment concerns, the court said, and the seizure could not be conducted without a warrant, parental consent, a court order, or the special circumstances that sometimes arise in a situation dangerous to officers.

The court went on to hold that the two investigators were entitled to qualified immunity because they could have believed that they were not violating a clearly established right of the student to be free from such a seizure at school.

The caseworker, Bob Camreta, and the deputy sheriff, James Alford, each appealed to the Supreme Court, which consolidated the apppeals and agreed to hear one hour of oral arguments in the case, likely early in 2011.

Twenty-seven states filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the two investigators, urging the court to take up the case. The mother, meanwhile, filed a brief urging the justices not to disturb the 9th Circuit ruling.

The cases are Camreta v. Greene (No. 09-1454) and Alford v. Greene (No. 09-1478).

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