Skip to content

Don L. Mathews et al v. Kamala D. Harris, as Attorney General, etc., et al.

  • by

Court/Judicial body:
Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, Division Two

Mathews v. Harris, 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 9

9 January 2017

Instrument(s) cited:
Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (Penal Code, Section 311 and 11164 onwards) (as amended by Assembly Bill 1775)
US Constitution, 14th Amendment
California Constitution, Article I, Section 1
Evidence Code, Sections 994, 1014 and 1024
18 US Code, 18, Part 1, Chapter 110, Section 2251 onwards
Stats. 1965, Chapter 1171, Section 2, Page 2971
Stats. 1987, Chapter 1459, Section 5, Page 5518

Case summary

The claimants were a certified alcohol and drug counsellor and two licensed marriage and family therapists in California, who challenged a provision of the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act in California (“CANRA”), which was amended in 2014 to require psychotherapists to notify law enforcement or child welfare agencies when their patients disclose that they have (among other things) developed, downloaded, streamed, or accessed child abuse images through electronic or digital media. Prior to the amendment in 2014, therapists were required to notify law enforcement or child welfare agencies when there was a reasonable suspicion that a person knowingly developed, duplicated, printed or exchanged child pornography. The claimants allege that the amended provision of CANRA violates their patients’ right to privacy under the US Constitution.

This case was originally brought before the trial court, which dismissed the complaint but granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Issue and resolution:
Privacy and confidentiality in therapy. The Court had to decide whether the relevant provision of CANRA violated the right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which involved an analysis of the purpose of the law and the reasonableness of its provisions. The Court found that the law did not violate a patient’s right to privacy under the US Constitution and upheld the law.

Court reasoning:
The psychotherapist claimants argued that many of their patients who have sexual disorders and admitted to viewing child abuse images “do not present a serious danger of ‘hands-on’ sexual abuse of children”, citing research reports indicating that there is no evidence that a patient viewing child abuse images actually engages in in person sexual abuse or exploitation of children. On the other hand, the Attorney-General for the State of California argued that the provision of CANRA properly and legally aids authorities in “identifying and protecting children from sexual exploitation by consumers of child pornography as well as those who are involved in its production”.

The Court held that the privacy interest of patients who communicate to therapists that they have watched child abuse images is outweighed by the State’s compelling interest in identifying and protecting sexually abused children. Therefore, the Court held that the a patient’s admission that he or she has viewed child abuse images is not protected by therapist-patient privilege.

The Court reasoned that there is no fundamental right at issue in this case, and CANRA satisfies the rational basis test for determining the validity of a legislative enactment (which is the appropriate standard of review if there is no fundamental right at issue). CANRA was “reasonably calculated to further the purpose of protecting abused and sexually exploited children”. The Court noted that sexual abuse includes not assault, but also exploitation, and that CANRA’s purpose “is to protect children from abuse and neglect”. The Court found that sexual exploitation can occur in the viewing of abuse images, and “hands on” abuse is not required for sexual exploitation to occur.

The case reaffirms CANRA, the existing law requiring the mandatory reporting by certain therapists to law enforcement or child welfare agencies in the circumstances covered by CANRA. As well as more overt forms of child abuse images, this law could capture sexually explicit “sexting selfies” between two minors, which would nonetheless require reporting by therapists to relevant authorities, even if there is no indication of abuse. The Court held that psychotherapists are not investigators who can make determinations as to whether situations involve undue influence, coercion, use of force or exploitation. When a report is made, law enforcement agencies have discretion (not an obligation) to investigate.

The claimants could seek to appeal to the California Supreme Court, but as at the time of writing this case summary, there was no publicly available information on whether they intend to do so.

Link to full judgement:

This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.