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Suspects Denied Access to Child Abuse Records : Justices Hold Defendants Have No Right to See Protective Agencies’ Files Unless Judge OKs It

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, citing the “vulnerability and guilt” of sexually abused children, declared Tuesday that accused child molesters have no right to see all the confidential records compiled in their cases.

But the court concluded also that a judge may examine those records to see if they contain any information that the defendant should have.

The 5-4 ruling overturns a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision which said that the defendant should be allowed to examine all records to prepare for his trial. California and 23 other states had urged a reversal of that ruling.

Court Badly Split

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The vote reflected a high court badly split by an issue that has arisen in the recent wave of child abuse cases: the need to protect children and confidential informants versus the rights of defendants to confront their accusers.

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., writing for the court, said: “To allow full disclosure to defense counsel in this type of case would sacrifice unnecessarily the commonwealth’s compelling interest in protecting its child-abuse information.”

In cases in which a parent molests a child, it is “essential that the child have a state-designated person to whom he may turn and to do so with the assurance of confidentiality,” Powell said. “Relatives and neighbors who suspect abuse also will be more willing to come forward if they know that their identities will be protected.”

Accused of Incest

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The case arose in 1979, when George Ritchie, a Pennsylvania man, was charged with rape and incest involving his 13-year-old daughter. The girl was turned over by a relative to a county agency responsible for protecting abused children. Before the father’s trial, his lawyer sought to inspect the files compiled by the county agency, but a judged rejected the request. In 1984, the state Supreme Court overturned the father’s subsequent conviction, concluding that the defendant’s attorney could not prepare a full defense without seeing all of the files.

All 50 states have laws mandating the reporting of child abuse, and most specify that the identities of informants will be kept confidential. Although Tuesday’s ruling said the records of child protection agencies should be kept confidential, criminal records outlining the charges are routinely turned over to defense lawyers.

“It’s a very important decision. To know these files will remain confidential will give victims and informants the security to come forward,” said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Karen Ziskind, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “These records contain intimate, private matters about family relationships and the like. To get a child to open up, you need to know it will remain confidential.”

Case Returned to Judge

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The high court sent the case back to the original judge with the direction to examine the state’s files in private. “We agree that (the defendant) is entitled to know whether (the files) contain information that may have changed the outcome of his trial,” Powell said.

Two dissenters--Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall--would go further, giving the father’s lawyer the right to inspect the records to see what the young girl told county workers. “Denial of access to a witness’s prior statements imposes a handicap that strikes at the heart of cross-examination,” Brennan wrote.

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Antonin Scalia, Brennan and Marshall, filed a separate dissent saying that, for jurisdictional reasons, the court should not have intervened at this stage. They said the court should have waited until a retrial and the case (Pennsylvania vs. Ritchie, 85-1347) was final.

In other rulings, the court:

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--Said that a reasonable mistake made by police officers in carrying out a search warrant does not require that seized evidence be excluded in a trial. Officers in Baltimore, armed with a warrant for a third-floor apartment, walked through a door and found drugs in two rooms. But they later learned that these were, in fact, two separate apartments occupied by different residents. Because of this violation of the warrant, the Maryland Supreme Court threw out the drug conviction against the resident of the second unit.

‘Honest Mistakes’

In reversing this case (Maryland vs. Garrison, 85-759) on 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court said that the officers’ actions in the 1982 raid were “objectively understandable and reasonable.” The court majority relied on a 1971 ruling which said that “honest mistakes” by policemen did not require an exclusion of the evidence. In dissent, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, said that the officers could have examined the rooms and determined that they were separate before seizing the drugs and that their conduct therefore was “not reasonable.”

--Declared that a full-time gambler is engaged in a “trade or business” and therefore may deduct gambling losses for income tax purposes. In 1978, Robert Groetzinger spent 60 to 80 hours a week gambling on dog races. He won $70,000, lost $72,032 and cited $2,032 in losses on his income tax statement. The IRS refused to accept the losses. “This was not a hobby or a passing fancy,” Blackmun wrote for a 6-3 majority in the case (IRS vs. Groetzinger, 85-1226). “He did what he did for a livelihood, though with a less than successful result.”

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