October 12, 2004

Oral Arguments Held in Pennsylvania Fourth Amendment Case

On Tuesday, October 12, 2004, HSLDA Litigation Attorney James Mason argued before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania on behalf of a family whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated in March of 2004.

In a situation very similar to HSLDA's North Carolina Stumbo case, Pennsylvania family Rob and Susan Gauthier were forced to allow a social worker from Susquehanna County Services (SCS) into their home without any evidence of either abuse or neglect as the court rubberstamped an order to compel their cooperation.

As a matter of protocol, every SCS investigation requires a "home visit," even if the allegations are known to be false and have no connection with the home. When the Gauthiers refused the home visit, the social worker filed a petition in the Susquehanna County Court on March 4, 2004 to compel the family to allow her into their home to complete her investigation.

She stated only that the family had refused to allow her to visit their home, and though there was nothing in the petition to establish probable cause, the court granted her request by having the court clerk actually rubber-stamp the proposed order.

HSLDA filed both an appeal of the order and a petition for a stay for the duration of that appeal, but the stay was denied at the trial level, the appeal level, and in the Supreme Court, and the family was compelled to comply with the unwanted visit on March 19, 2004, violating their Fourth Amendment rights.

Though the damage was already done and the Gauthiers' rights violated, HSLDA continued the appeal of the original order because the case raised an important issue that could affect any other family in Pennsylvania. Courts may not constitutionally simply rubber-stamp a search order based upon a petition that does not allege probable cause for an intrusion into a home.

The appellate court was faced with the merits of this Fourth Amendment claim on Tuesday, October 12, 2004, as Litigation Attorney Jim Mason traveled to Pennsylvania to argue on the Gauthiers' behalf.

"The statutes governing child abuse investigations do not allow the courts to issue an investigative order without a petition containing evidence of probable cause," Mr. Mason argued. "The order in the Gauthiers' case was an invalid judicial search warrant."

Because social worker investigations must be conducted in compliance with the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the order must be supported by probable cause. Even though the social worker's petition alleged no facts at all in support of the search warrant, the trial court ruled that none are necessary and relied instead on a flawed interpretation of Pennsylvania law.

Mason explained further, "The petition seeking the order was facially defective. Pennsylvania law permits the issuance of a search warrant only if the petition alleges facts that establish that a search is needed to determine whether a child is at risk of harm."

The petition in this case did not meet this criterion. In fact, the clearest inference from the petition was that SCS knew that the child was not at any risk and merely sought the order to close its investigation.

"The trial court's order clearly violated the Gauthier's Fourth Amendment right to privacy," Mason stated. "A favorable outcome in this appeal is vital for a provision of accountability to Pennsylvania's courts. Families don't want this to happen again."

The Gauthiers are hopeful that a favorable decision in their case will help other families both in Pennsylvania and around the country. HSLDA continues to fight for the Fourth Amendment rights of our member families as we await a decision in this appeal.