Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against a California couple "living every parent's nightmare" who tried to sue local county officials for damages after failing to get off a database listing known or suspected child abusers.
At issue was whether the database -- known as the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI) -- violates the constitutional protection of due process because those on it are not given a "fair opportunity" to challenge the allegations against them.
The justices by an 8-0 vote ruled strictly on the complex, rather dry legal arguments, refusing to offer any sympathetic thoughts on the plight of either the parents in question, or the county.
Los Angeles County officials argued they should not have to pay any damages because although the county sheriff's office investigated and placed the couple on the registry, any constitutional violation arose from a state, not local policy.
A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the parents, describing a "nightmarish encounter" with the system after Wendy and Craig Humphries were accused by their 15-year-old daughter of child abuse in 2001. The girl had stolen the family car and driven to Utah to stay with her biological mother and stepfather. She had resisted living with Craig Humphries and his family in Valencia, California, and had told her biological mother she had been abused for several months.
After a hospital exam found the girl had been a victim of "non-accidental trauma," the Humphries were arrested on felony charges of torture.
The family's two other children were removed from school without a warrant and placed in protective custody. The younger children denied any abuse by their parents, and the Humphries continue to deny all the allegations.
When an initial investigation report was completed by police, the Humphries were listed on the CACI.
However, a subsequent probe -- which included the family doctor testifying he had examined the girl on repeated occasions and had seen no physical abuse -- found the parents "factually innocent" and they were cleared of all charges.
When they next sought to remove their names from the CACI list, they were told to address their request to the local detective in the case. But they found the detective had been transferred and there was no procedure to challenge their listing. The state and county continued refusing to remove the Humphries designation as "substantiated" child abusers, even after a court order mandated the arrest records be sealed and destroyed.
The three-judge, San Francisco-based federal appeals court panel last year concluded that "to be accused of child abuse may be our generation's contribution to defamation per se, a kind of moral leprosy," and said that the Humphries "were directly affected in their eligibility to work or volunteer at a local community center."
Wendy Humphries was a special education teacher and Craig Humphries was a volunteer soccer coach.
That court ruled the state of California -- which was sued along with the county-- must pay damages including attorney fees. The high court let that part of the federal appeals court ruling stand.
The high court in its decision did not delve into the specific child-abuse allegations, or the state's handling of the matter. Rather its focus remained strictly on the liability of the county, which was sued along with the state for civil rights violations.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with county officials, saying they were only liable if the local "policy or custom" deprived the parents of their civil rights. But Breyer said it was the state policy in question here, not the local one.
Citing precedents, Breyer said the court's past rulings concluded "Congress intended potential [civil rights] liability where a municipality's own violations were at issue but not where the violations of others were at issue."
This appeal raised the fundamental question of whether an absence of procedures or accountability amounted to a "policy." Other jurisdictions nationwide will be closely watching the outcome, over creating standards of liability. The county here argued it was only enforcing state laws, not local ones. The ruling in their favor might now shield municipalities from having to implement certain state procedures as their own.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case, since she had earlier expressed her views on the issue when she was the Justice Department's Solicitor General, the job she held before joining the high court in August.
The case is Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350).