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Miller v. Mitchell

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Citation Edit

Miller v. Mitchell, 598 F.3d 139 (3d Cir. 2010) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

In November 2008, the District Attorney of Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, Defendant Skuminick, made an announcement that high school students possessing "inappropriate images of minors" could be prosecuted under Pennsylvania law for possession or distribution of child pornography. Following the announcement, Skuminick sent a letter to the parents of between 16 and 20 students suspected of "sexting." The parents and students were given a choice of the teens either attending an education program on the subject, or face felony child pornography charges.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

Plaintiffs brought suit to enjoin the DA from bringing criminal charges for refusal to attend the education program and a preliminary injunction was granted by the district court.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

The appellate court affirmed on the basis that plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of success on the merits on their claims of constitutional retaliation.

The District Attorney raised two threshold arguments, abstention and mootness, citing the ongoing state juvenile informal adjustment proceeding, and his promise not to prosecute two of the plaintiffs, respectively. The DA's argument for abstention was not persuasive to the court because not only had no adjustment proceedings began because the parents at issue had not yet consented, an informal adjustment is not "judicial in nature," and therefore not appropriate for abstention. With respect to the mootness claim, the court agreed with the DA as to the two plaintiffs he agreed not to prosecute, and focused its analysis on the remaining plaintiffs.

A party seeking a preliminary injunction must satisfy a four-factor test: (1) likelihood of success on the merits; (2) that he or she will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied; (3) granting relief will not result in even greater harm to the non-moving party; and (4) the public interest favors such relief.

The appellate court agreed with the district court's analysis of the second, third, and fourth factors. To satisfy the first factor, and show a likelihood of success on the merits, the plaintiffs would have to prove (1) they engaged in a constitutionally protected activity; (2) that the government responded with retaliation; and (3) that the protected activity caused the retaliation. Plaintiffs raised two causes of action that were up on appeal, retaliation in violation of the minors' First Amendment right to be free from compelled speech, the speech being a portion of the education program requiring an essay, and retaliation in violation of the parents' Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to direct their children's upbringing.

While the appellate court affirmed the injunction based on retaliation in violation of the minors' rights, the analysis was slightly different from that of the district court. The District Attorney threatened to prosecute the plaintiffs before their refusal to attend the education program. Therefore, the threat was not "retaliation" to that act but rather retaliation against a future occurrence. Because the court agreed with the plaintiffs that prosecution was imminent following a refusal to attend the course, the first retaliation claim was upheld. The essay portion of the education program would have required the students to write an essay on why what they had done was "wrong," and most of the students and parents did not believe that what the teens had done was wrong.

Parents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to "raise their children without undue state interference."[1] The appellate court agreed with plaintiffs' argument that the mandatory education program imposed on the students by the District Attorney represented an interference with the parents' right to raise their children with their own views of responsibility and morality. While case law recognizes a secondary right of school officials to take an active role in the moral and ethical upbringing of children, this secondary right does not extend to the District Attorney's Office.

Finally, the District Attorney's agreement not to prosecute the minors if they attended and completed the education program clearly shows that the DA's only motive for bringing prosecution would have been a consequence of the students not attended or completing the program. Since the decision not to attend the program had been reasonably shown by plaintiffs to be constitutionally protected, the DA's motive was likely to be determined retaliatory.

References Edit

  1. Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 303 (3d Cir. 2000) (full-text).

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