Judge says threats to confiscate children may be coercion

By Bob Unruh

An Arizona homeschool family’s constitutional lawsuit against authorities – including sheriff’s deputies, social service workers and even an assistant attorney general – has been advanced by a judge who ruled that a threat to take the family’s children into custody could have been perceived as coercion.

It was the second straight strike against authorities who went to the home of John and Tiffany Loudermilk in 2006. WND has previously reported on the case, including when a judge ruled social workers must respect the U.S. Constitution regarding privacy and parental rights.

The court decisions have focused on arguments by deputies and social workers, who contend they shouldn’t be held liable for their actions.

Earlier, the court ruled that social workers, accompanied by Maricopa County deputy sheriffs, made unsupported threats to place a family’s children in custody and arrest the parents if they were not allowed to make what ended up being an allegedly illegal search of the family’s home.

Find out how to keep the faith while in the world. Get “Fish Out of Water: Surviving and Thriving as a Christian on a Secular Campus”

U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll at that point ordered that a lawsuit by the family against the social workers and sheriff would be allowed to continue, because the social workers’ concerns were based on “an anonymous tip that the … Loudermilk children were being neglected and that plaintiffs’ home was uninhabitable.”

However, the judge said that under federal law, an anonymous tip, “without more, does not constitute probable cause.”

The Loudermilk’s are members of the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia-based organization leading their defense.

“Social workers and sheriff’s deputies had come to the home … demanding entry based on a six-week-old anonymous tip that the newly constructed home was unsafe for children,” the organization said.

Now in a ruling this week, the judge in the case denied a state motion for summary judgment, stating, “The disputed questions of fact on these [consent] issues … preclude summary judgment.”

The ruling means a jury must decide whether the Loudermilks were coerced into allowing social workers and deputies into their home.

The lawsuit dates to March 3, 2006, and the state was trying, according to the HSLDA, to convince the judge that the social workers and deputies were immune from litigation because the family “voluntarily” allowed the investigators into the home.

The HSLDA said, however, that “assertion … ignores the fact the social worker had said the Loudermilk children would be removed for 72 hours if the parents did not permit entry.”

“We are grateful that the judge is taking this matter seriously and making sure that a family’s right to be together is protected,” said Darren Jones, staff attorney with HSLDA. “The Loudermilks are doing a service to all families by their willingness to stand up against unjustified state intervention, not just at the initial contact, but for the four years this case has been going on.”

A 2008 analysis of the arguments by HSLDA noted the confrontation between social service agency staff members and the family developed when authorities went to the family’s home and demanded entry.

Their reason was a six-week-old anonymous tip that the brand new home was unsafe for children.

The HSLDA analysis then said, “After an escalating confrontation at the front door that lasted 40 minutes, the social workers, backed by no fewer than four deputies, threatened to take the Loudermilks’ children into custody and place them in foster care if the Loudermilks continued to deny them entry into their home. An assistant attorney general repeated this threat to HSLDA Attorney Thomas Schmidt, who was assisting the Loudermilks by phone during the confrontation.

“Under this duress, Mr. and Mrs. Loudermilk allowed the social workers and sheriff’s deputies inside. Within five minutes, the social workers determined that the anonymous tip was false and left,” the analysis said.

The family’s subsequent lawsuit filed by the HSLDA alleged violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments.

The lawsuit names Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, deputies Joshua Ray, Joseph Sousa, Richard Gagnon and Michael Danner, social workers Rhonda Cash and Jenna Cramer, and Assistant Attorney General Julie Rhodes.

The judge, in handing authorities their previous courtroom loss, noted that the social workers misrepresented that they had a court order for an inspection of the home. He also noted the deputies were uncooperative, refusing to provide their cell phone number so the HSLDA attorney could talk to them.

The judge ruled then verbal threats generally are not actionable in a federal civil rights proceeding, but in this case, “courts have held that a threat constitutes an actionable constitutional violation in certain circumstances, including ‘when the threat is so brutal or wantonly cruel as to shock the conscience.'”