qualified immunity

What Happens When the Government Goes Too Far Investigating Child Abuse?

N.B.: This post contains descriptions of medical examinations stemming from allegations of sexual abuse of a small child.

Over at Reason, Robby Soave reports a horrifying story out of Albuquerque. A kindergarten teacher alleged one of her students—pseudonymously “Becca,” age 4— had been sexually abused by both her father, Adam Lowther, and her seven-year-old brother, “Charlie.” With the aid of the police, the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) removed the children from their parents and set off a course of events that traumatized the Lowther family and Becca in particular.

After the better part of a year, the prosecutor declined to prosecute Adam and he was reunited with his children—but after his career was derailed and his reputation in tatters after being accused of one of the most detestable crimes against his own child. Becca had been subjected to examinations and photographs of her genitals and anus without her parents present, and her family reports that she is now terrified of doctors. The Lowthers are suing all the individuals and organizations involved in the separation and investigation.

Certainly, government agencies have the responsibility to investigate claims of sexual and other abuse of children. But such investigations must be handled with the utmost care and prudence lest the investigation itself traumatize (or re-traumatize) the children involved.

According to the Reason report and the lawsuit, the authorities in Albuquerque acted in haste, with zeal, and disregard for the welfare of the Lowther children:

“The forensic interviews and physical examinations were conducted without a warrant or court oversight. CYFD, who was the guardian of the children, acted with indifference to the trauma caused by the forensic interviews and examinations. Indeed, the removal decision was made in furtherance of the criminal investigation—not to keep the children safe from harm. This itself was contrary to the children’s interests and violative of their constitutional rights.”

In a perverse and bitter irony, careless and overzealous government actors can inflict the sexual trauma they are charged with preventing.

Ending Qualified Immunity for Cops Is a Matter of Life and Death

Last week, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, police released video from a nighttime SWAT raid on the home of a man suspected of selling marijuana—yes, marijuana—during which officers fatally shot his mother, 72-year-old Geraldine Townsend, after she fired a BB gun at the officers. As he is being cuffed and dragged from the house, Mike Townsend can be heard pleading with the officers to let him see his dying mother, but they refuse.

In December, Wichita, Kansas, police received what turned out to be a prank call regarding a non-existent hostage situation at the home of Andrew Finch. When the 28-year-old father of two went outside to investigate the flashing emergency lights, SWAT officers yelled at him to “Show your hands” and “Walk this way.” Seconds later, one of the officers shot and killed him. Andrew Finch was unarmed.

That same month, a six-year-old San Antonio boy was killed by deputies who were shooting at a suspected car thief, also unarmed, on the front porch of the boy’s mobile home. Two weeks before that, former Mesa County, Arizona, officer Philip Brailsford was acquitted of murder for shooting an unarmed man, Daniel Shaver, as he begged for his life in the hallway of a motel. And back in July, Justine Damond was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house. Damond too was unarmed.

Lack of systematic record-keeping makes it difficult to quantify the scope of the problem with precision, but according to The Washington Post, of the roughly 1000 people shot and killed by police last year, at least seven percent were unarmed. A study by Vice News of all shootings by police, including non-fatal ones, suggests the numbers are even worse: 20 percent of people shot by police were unarmed.

No one denies that police have a difficult, dangerous, and sometimes scary job, nor should we forget the heroism of officers like those who threw themselves between citizens and mass shooter Micah Johnson during a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas in July 2016. But the time has come for a national conversation about the risks we expect officers to take in order to avoid shooting innocent people like Andrew Finch, Daniel Shaver, and Justine Damond—and also to ensure that they avoid creating unnecessarily dangerous situations by staging gratuitous nighttime SWAT raids to serve low-level drug warrants.

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

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