One distinction between the United States and a totalitarian state is that the government cannot drag us out of our homes and deny us our freedom without any reason. If the government wants to do this, it needs an excellent reason to do so. If you sue the government over an irrational seizure, the government cannot dismiss the case without producing evidence that it had good reason to do so. There is no such evidence in this case.
The case is Myers v. Patterson, decided on April 11. Someone called the child abuse hotline to report that plaintiff was acting in an eccentric manner with respect to her child at school.
According to the caseworker notes, the caller stated that the mother (i) had refused to sign emergency contact cards with a home phone number for DJM, (ii) had refused to sign permission slips for school trips, (iii) had written letters to the FBI with the school cc’ed, (iv) had “attended an award assembly where she only took notes,” (v) had made “unusual inquiries about other children” at the school, and (vi) had grown “furious” with the school when DJM’s father picked him up, demanding to see the father’s signature.
The investigation did not reveal much more than this, other than to show that plaintiff was a "super-mom" who was totally focused on her child. Mom never exhibited homicidal tendencies or a propensity for self-harm, the standard for involuntary seizure under the New York Mental Health Law. She was seized anyway even though she denied any strange behavior, stated the police would have to arrest her if they wanted to interview her daughter, and she was uncooperative and irrational. She sued the people who seized her, and the district court granted them qualified immunity, finding they acted reasonable under the circumstances.
Not so fast, the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Leval and Calabresi) says, holding that the record is not sufficiently detailed to support the finding that these governmental actors acted reasonably. As the Second Circuit says, "A person may be annoyed, uncooperative, and irrational without presenting a danger to herself or of violence to others. Nor does Johnson's refusal to allow her child to be interviewed by authorities establish arguable probable cause to believe Johnson presented a risk of serious physical harm resulting from violent behavior." As the evidence here is too sketchy, the government has not made its case that it acted reasonably under the case circumstances, even if she was diagnosed with a delusional disorder and paranoid schizophrenia once she was involuntarily committed, and her parental rights were eventually severed by New York Family Court. But while the officer's instincts may have been correct when he seized plaintiff, "we cannot grant immunity for decisions merely because ex post they seem to have been good ones."
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Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.