Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Case Law Development: Police Interference with Parent's Visitation Rights Did Not Violate Parent's Substantive or Procedural Due Process

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examines the constitutional interests at stake when police act in visitation disputes.  The case involved an ongoing custody and visitation dispute.  Father had sole custody of the son and Mother had visitation rights.  Police were regularly called upon to intervene when the parent's transferred the child.  In this case, Father came to pick up son from Mother and Mother insisted that she had a week of additional visitation time.  Father then called the police to assist in retrieving his son.  Mother alleged that Father knew the police officer that was called and that he and the officer had conspired to deprive her of visitation.  The district court found sufficient factual questions regarding this alleged conspiracy to deny defendant's motion for summary judgment. 

In reversing the district court, the court of appeals acknowledged that Mother had a liberty interest in her visitation with her son, but held that the officer's acted reasonably in interpreting the custody order and the deprivation of one week of visitation did not rise to the level of a federal constitutional violation.

The court noted the prudential considerations supporting this holding: "In so holding, we are mindful that this case arises in the intersection of several fields of law where federal courts have shown the greatest hesitation in creating new federal mandates. We will not disregard this justifiable caution lightly. Substantive due process vindicates those interests which are fundamental and, contrary to [Mother’s] theory, may not to be used as a font of tort law to be superimposed upon whatever systems may already be administered by the States.... If every custody dispute, including ones only concerning a weekend or even an hour of visitation, can give rise to a federal claim necessitating federal interpretation of a state custody order, federal courts could rapidly become de facto family courts. Such a result is not permitted by Supreme Court jurisprudence."

The court noted the fact-specific nature of its holding: "We need not hold that visitation rights will never give rise to a substantive due process claim.... We need not reach the question whether interference with a lengthy visitation period or repeated interference with shorter periods may give rise to a cognizable substantive due process claim. We need not decide here whether interference that affects the existence of visitation rights altogether, rather than discrete instances of visitation, might give rise to a viable claim. Nor need we reach the question whether custodial parents may bring suit. "

As to the procedural due process analysis, the court concluded that no pre-deprivation hearing was required in enforcing this visitation order, as Mother could have sought to have the order clarified at an earlier time and the state's interest in promptly enforcing these orders was significant.

Justice Silverman wrote separately to note his disagreement over the court's statement that “'a single instance of visitation, of a single week in duration', is not a fundamental right.... Even though a non-custodial parent may have visitation “only” every other weekend, to some parents that weekend is the moon and the stars."  However, under the circumstances of this case, given the reasonableness of the police officer's actions, he agreed that the district court should be reversed.

Brittain v. Hansen, 9th Circuit  No. 03-57012 (June 22, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited June 26, 2006 bgf)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2006/06/case_law_develo_31.html

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