What happens when a local police department and a state child protective services agency overreact and abuse their authority?
In one such case, Walmart ended-up being sued.
The story began in 2008. Lisa and Anthony Demaree of Peoria, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix) visited a vacation destination that’s popular among Arizonans – San Diego – and took their three young daughters with them. When they returned home, they brought photos of their then 5, 4, and 1 ½ year old girls to a nearby Walmart store to obtain prints.
It all seemed pretty innocent productive. But some of the Walmart employees who saw some of the “bath tub photos” of the three little girls believed that they were seeing child pornography, so they contacted the local police.
Officers at the Peoria Police Department were concerned about child pornography, as well, so they contacted the Arizona Department of Child Protective Services. And shortly thereafter, Mr. and Mrs. Demaree had their three daughters taken away from them for over a month.
"Some of the photos are bathtime photos," Lisa Demaree told ABC News at the time, "but there are a few after the bath. Three of the girls are naked, lying on a towel with their arms around each other, and we thought it was so cute."
After several weeks of the children being in state custody, and after several weeks of court appearances and appeals, a county superior court judge ruled that none of the photographs of the Demaree’s daughters were “pornographic.” Similarly, a medical exam revealed no signs of sexual abuse. Thus, the girls were returned to their parents.
It seems like a happy resolution to a family’s worst nightmare. Yet the damage is still real, as the couple's names went in to a central registry of sex offenders, and, as Ms. Demartee told ABC News, “we've missed a year of our children's lives as far as memories go.”
In 2009, the couple sued the city of Peoria and the State Attorney General's office for defamation. They also sued Walmart because, according to their lawsuit, Walmart had failed to disclose to their customers that they had an “unsuitable prints” policy wherein if store employees discovered objectionable material coming from their customers, they would be compelled to report the incident to law enforcement authorities.
A federal judge has already sided with Walmart in the matter, but now the Demaree’s have appealed their case to a higher court and an outcome is pending. And while the damages to the Demaree family are tragic, here’s another fact: the damages to Walmart are tragic, too.
The idea that Walmart would have an “unsuitable prints” policy is quite reasonable. The company itself could be legally liable for handling illegal materials, were they not to hand-off suspicious items of this sort to law enforcement authorities.
The failure here lies with those who wield the force of law. The store employees may have over-reacted, sure. But the superior court judge’s decision also tells us that both police department personnel, and child protective services agents, were a bit too eager to take children away from their parents.
The Demaree’s damages are no doubt real and tangible. But unfortunately, Americans all too often assume the absolute worst about private businesses, while giving a “pass” to government agencies, even in the face of egregious behavior.
Austin Hill is an Author, Consultant, and Host of "Austin Hill's Big World of Small Business," a syndicated talk show about small business ownership and entrepreneurship. He is Co-Author of the new release "The Virtues Of Capitalism: A Moral Case For Free Markets." , Author of "White House Confidential: The Little Book Of Weird Presidential History," and a frequent guest host for Washington, DC's 105.9 WMAL Talk Radio.