High court shields county in child abuse listing case
The Supreme Court added another legal hurdle Tuesday for a Los Angeles couple who have been fighting for nine years to have their names removed from California’s state index of reported child abusers.
The justices in a unanimous decision shielded Los Angeles County, at least temporarily, from being held liable for violating the rights of Craig and Wendy Humphries of Valencia.
In 2001, a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy filed a report to the state saying the couple were child abusers, based on allegations from Craig Humphries’ teenage daughter, who had fled to Utah. This report was later shown to be false, and Craig and Wendy Humphries were declared innocent.
But California did not have a process for wrongly accused persons to have their names removed from the index, and the couple sued the state and the county. They won last year before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
However, lawyers for the county appealed to the high court, arguing that the policy on reporting child abusers is set by the state. In the past, the court has said a city or county cannot be held liable for violating a person’s constitutional rights unless the municipality itself has been found to have an unconstitutional policy.
Citing that principle Tuesday in Los Angeles County vs. Humphries, the justices spared the county from paying $60,000 in lawyer’s fees to the couple. They said the county is not liable in this case until it is decided that the Sheriff’s Department had a policy of not seeking to have the names of wrongly accused persons removed from the state index.
“The Supreme Court decided a very narrow technical issue,” said Beverly Hills lawyer Esther Boynton, who has represented the couple through their nine-year legal odyssey. She said the case will now return to a judge in Los Angeles to decide the county’s liability.
“It is important to note the Supreme Court’s decision has no effect on the 9th Circuit’s ruling that the Humphrieses’ constitutional rights were violated and continued to be violated,” said Andrew Pincus, a Washington lawyer who represented the couple in the high court.
Savage reported from Washington and Williams from Los Angeles.