The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate a suit by an Idaho woman who said her constitutional right to discipline her son was violated when police investigated her for repeatedly hitting him with a belt on school grounds.
Officials from the Idaho county in which the investigation took place applauded Tuesday’s ruling, which allows police to investigate a parent for hitting a child in public, saying the conclusion was necessary to keep children safe.
The court stopped short of defining a parent’s right to administer corporal punishment in the ruling, but said it was not unlimited.
The woman, Sherie Sweaney of Meridian, was prosecuted on criminal charges of child abuse but acquitted. Tuesday’s ruling upheld a federal judge’s decision to dismiss her damage suit against the Ada County sheriff’s deputy who filed the report on her.
“Sweaney did not have a clearly established federal constitutional right to strike her child with a belt on public school grounds,” said Judge Arthur Alarcon in the 3-0 ruling.
Sweaney went looking for her 14-year-old son Brian after he failed to return home from basketball practice at Lake Hazel Middle School in March 1993. When she found him, she took him to a hallway and hit him three or four times with a leather belt, the court said. He laughed and said it didn’t hurt, and she hit him two or three more times.
A teacher was watching and reported the beating to a counselor, who told Joyce Michie, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school. She talked to the boy the next day and saw a bruise on his arm, which he said may or may not have come from the belt. She also interviewed his mother, who said he had “smarted off” and she would do the same thing again under the same circumstances.
Prosecutors reviewed Michie’s report and charged Sweaney with the misdemeanor crime of willfully causing her son to be injured. She was acquitted by a jury. Her attorney, Eric Rossman, said the state Health and Welfare Department also investigated but found no abuse.