Lisa and A.J. Demaree’s decade-long legal ordeal started with, by all accounts, an utterly innocent family moment.
In 2008, the couple took their three daughters, then ages 5, 4 and 1½, on a vacation to San Diego. They snapped more than 100 photos during the trip, like parents do, including several of the girls playing together during bath time. When they returned to their home in Peoria, Ariz., they dropped the camera’s memory stick off at a Walmart for developing.
Within a day, a police detective came knocking.
A Walmart employee had flagged the bath-time photos as pornographic, the detective told the parents. One showed the girls wrapped in towels with their arms around each other; another showed their exposed bottoms.
The Demarees said they were harmless shots of the children goofing around, no different than what you’d expect to find in any family scrapbook. But police and social workers launched a full-blown sex abuse investigation, raiding the couple’s home and putting the girls in protective custody for a month while they interviewed dozens of family members and friends about whether the Demarees were child sex offenders.
When authorities declined to bring charges — judges who reviewed the pictures found they were, in fact, harmless family photos — the couple sued two Child Protective Services employees, among others, alleging constitutional violations.
On Tuesday, after a series of defeats in the case, a federal appeals court affirmed what the Demarees have argued all along: that their children were taken from them for no good reason.
“The social workers did not have reasonable cause to believe the children were at risk of serious bodily harm or molestation,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote. “Therefore, viewing the record most favorably to the Demarees, the defendants acted unconstitutionally in taking the three children away from home without judicial authorization.”
The decision, which came nearly 10 years after the parents’ initial encounter with police, revived the case against the two social workers after a lower court dismissed it in 2014. That court ruled that the social workers, as employees of the Arizona government, were entitled to “qualified immunity,” meaning they were protected from liability in lawsuits arising from their professional duties.
But the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit panel disagreed, ruling in a 47-page opinion that the social workers presented no evidence that the children were in danger of being abused.