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Social workers held to warrantless search standard similar to police; granted immunity

Robert and Patti Andrews sued four social workers after they conducted an extensive "walk through" search of the Andrews' home following a child neglect complaint.  The social workers claimed the search was consensual and noted that they had relied on police advice that the search was legal, even if no warrant had been obtained. Ultimately no charges were filed against the Andrews for abuse or neglect.

The abuse complaint that catalyzed the search suggested that an investigation was warranted but that the children were not currently in danger.  On this basis, a warrant for a search could have been obtained, but was not.  After a delay caused by an inadequate address and a second referral related to conditions in the home, the social workers responded under a referral that indicated a social worker should contact the home within three business days.  The workers conducted the search at 8:30 pm with police officers in attendance.  The Andrews argued that they consented to the extensive search and individual interviews with the children only because they feared arrest or that the children would be taken from them if they declined.

After reviewing the facts, the Court concluded that the social workers owe the same obligation that police officers owe:  to obtain a reasonably-defined search warrant where circumstances are not exigent and safety is not an issue.  Nevertheless, it concluded that the social workers in this case were entitled to qualified immunity because they relied upon the advice of the police officers and did not reasonably anticipate that their actions would be extra-legal:  they "could reasonably [have] believe[d] that [their] conduct complie[d] with the law," as the concurring judge expressed it.

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