Court Refuses To Review Case of Acquitted Teacher

By William Snider — February 07, 1990 3 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a case in which a teacher who had been acquitted of child-abuse charges unsuccessfully contended that his federal civil rights had been violated during the investigation.

The Court’s action last month in Schoenfield v. County of Humboldt (Case No. 89-616) leaves standing lower-court rulings that the federal courts are not the proper forum for ruling on suits alleging malicious prosecution, because such cases raise no constitutional issues.

The suit had been filed by a student teacher working in Humboldt County, Calif., who was arrested in 1985 when two of the girls in his 5th-grade classroom complained that he had touched them inappropriately.

After the teacher was acquitted of charges of child abuse in a jury trial, he filed suit in federal court against the county and its employees, charging that a biased and faulty investigation had violated his 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws.

Both a federal district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case, saying that malicious prosecution violates the U.S. Constitution only when there are clear rights violations, such as when a defendant does not receive a fair trial or is arrested or detained without probable cause.

Because he was acquitted, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled, “the only deprivation Schoenfield suffered is of the type that would naturally occur when someone is prosecuted for an infamous crime,” such as lawyer’s fees and loss of reputation.

“A remedy, if any, must be in a state court,” the panel’s memoranel10ldum continued. “Although it is perhaps surprising that the federal Constitution does not protect an individual against malicious prosecution, that is clearly the law in this circuit.”

Lawyers for the county and its officials, in papers filed with the Supreme Court, said the teacher’s case asked the courts to find that “the Constitution permits only the guilty to be prosecuted. ... This is simply not the law.”

Such a finding, they said, would mean that prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials could be sued by virtually all defendants acquitted in criminal cases.

The High Court’s refusal to review the case does not establish a national precedent. But it may have a bearing on the claims for malicious prosecution filed in a federal court in the Ninth Circuit by defendants in the McMartin Preschool child-molestation case.

No Voting-Rights Violation

In other action, the Supreme Court last month ruled that a school-bond referendum approved by voters in Bibb County, Ga., in 1988 did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act, as black plaintiffs had alleged.

The ruling in Lucas v. Townsend (No. 89-400), which the Court made without comment and without hearing oral arguments, affirms a lower-court finding that the Bibb County school board did not need to seek prior clearance from the Justice Department when deciding to combine several bond issues in a single referendum.

Black plaintiffs had charged that the school board, by combining a controversial proposal to build a new high school with a popular proposal to air-condition existing schools, had prevented voters from deciding the issues separately. The high school was slated to be built in a predominantly white neighborhood.

The bond issue is also the subject of a separate lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The High Court also declined to hear two cases challenging the constitutionality of random drug testing of civilian Army drug counselors and Justice Department lawyers with top-secret security clearances.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as Court Refuses To Review Case of Acquitted Teacher