On May 20, 2019, the Supreme Court denied review in Doe v Woodard, 912 F3d 1278 (CA 10, 2019), a Tenth Circuit case involving a warrantless strip-search of a child at pre‑school. The question at hand was whether a state social worker’s warrantless search of a minor child for signs of abuse was unreasonable and, thus, a violation of a child’s Fourth Amendment rights. Importantly, the social worker was entitled to “qualified immunity” – and, thus, to have the case dismissed – unless the plaintiffs could show (1) a constitutional violation occurred and (2) the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.
Generally, the Constitution requires that a search be made pursuant to a warrant obtained with probable cause. However, three exceptions exist to the warrant requirement: (1) consent; (2) exigent circumstances; and (3) a “special need.” In Woodard, the Tenth Circuit considered the applicability of the third type of exception. The “special needs” doctrine is the catch‑all label applicable to cases where special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, makes the warrant and probable‑cause requirement impracticable. In Woodard, the plaintiffs carried the burden of showing that it was clearly established law that a social worker’s warrantless search of a minor child was not covered by the “special needs” doctrine. If the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden, the social worker would be entitled to qualified immunity.
As the Tenth Circuit noted, a circuit split exists relative to whether the “special needs” doctrine permits a social worker to search a child – four (4) circuits have found the doctrine does not apply, and two (2) circuits have found that the doctrine, subject to various tests, does apply. However, the court emphasized that no Tenth Circuit case law clearly established that plaintiffs suffered a constitutional violation. While the plaintiffs attempted to show that case law did clearly establish a constitutional violation, the court distinguished those cases from the one at hand. Consequently, the Tenth Circuit concluded that absent clearly‑established law, the social worker could not have known that the search would fail to comply with the reasonableness standards applicable to the “special needs” doctrine. Thus, the Tenth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim based on the conclusion that the social worker was entitled to qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the case means that the Tenth Circuit’s opinion is the final word in the matter. At least for now, a circuit split on the question will remain. The case may be accessed here.