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Departments : Point of Law

Liability for Failure to Protect

As a police officer, you can be sued for failing to prevent an injury in certain circumstances.

June 01, 2010  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Kniepp v. Tedder.

A man and his drunken wife were walking to their home in Philadelphia one winter night when police officers detained them. Because the pair were less than a block from home, the officers allowed the husband to go on home to care for their child, while they detained the wife a bit longer. Although the wife was visibly intoxicated and had difficulty walking without assistance, police eventually released her to stagger away in the darkness. She fell down an embankment and suffered severe brain damage.

Her ability to sue for violation of her constitutional right of due process was upheld on the theory that once police separated the woman from the assistance of her husband and saw how inebriated she was, their decision to release her to make her own way in the darkness increased the level of danger that she would fall and injure herself.

Munger v. Glasgow.

Officers were called to a bar to eject a drunken and belligerent Lance Munger, who was causing a disturbance. Although the temperature outside in the Montana night was only 11 degrees with a wind-chill of minus 25, and even though Munger wore only jeans and a T-shirt, officers prevented him from getting into his truck or reentering the bar. He walked away into the night and froze to death two blocks away. Upholding his parents' right to sue, the Court of Appeals said that police had "placed Munger in a more dangerous position than the one in which they found him," and so could be held liable under the "state-created danger" doctrine.

Kennedy v. Ridgefield.

When police investigated charges that a 13-year-old neighbor had molested the Kennedys' 9-year-old daughter, the Kennedys expressed great fear that the boy was unstable and dangerous. They asked police to let them know before officers interviewed the boy, so they could take precautions.

Officers promised to do so, but instead contacted the boy and his mother without notifying the Kennedys. When the Kennedys learned of this, officers sought to allay their fears by assuring them of extra patrols around their house. That night, the boy broke into their house, shot Mr. Kennedy dead, and shot and wounded Mrs. Kennedy.

The Court of Appeals concluded that by giving assurances that were not kept and by discouraging the Kennedys from taking prudent precautions for their own protection, police had placed the victims in greater danger than they otherwise would have faced.

Take Care

As to individuals in your custody, you have a "special relationship" that requires you to take reasonable care of them. Failure to do so could result in federal civil
liability.

In most states, police are statutorily immune from tort damages for failing to protect the citizenry. However, once you do become involved in a situation, your acts or omissions that place others in dangers they did not otherwise face can cause liability under the federal civil rights laws for "state-created danger." (State tort liability for negligence is governed by state laws, which vary from state to state. Check these with your local civil advisers.)

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

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Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Steven Davis @ 9/24/2011 4:13 PM

As a retired LEO in California I have been following the Kelly Thomas case. Six Officers were involved but only two were criminally charged. The other four clearly failed to potect victim Kelly once they arrived and saw the excessive, and deadly force being used against a helpless citizen.

Tony @ 7/24/2012 2:23 AM

Is it against the law for an officer not to put your seat belt on you once your in custody?

robert hovey @ 11/7/2012 12:16 PM

Currently working in training for Sheriffs Dept anyone aware of any liability cases for police that had some connection to or were because of something the Officer's did or put on social media?

David @ 6/1/2014 4:02 PM

I was got arrested few days ago for domestic battery the first time i ever been in trouble my sister was on drugs and stap I was sighting in my gun and she lunged at me grabing the gun i through her on to the ground and she was fighting to get my gun and ammo I have children at my house and she got a bloody nose from it I got charged for failure to protect and domistect battery 3 rd

David @ 6/1/2014 4:03 PM

Can I sue the cops for that

Bobby Davis @ 11/28/2014 11:33 AM

On TV you always see scenes where an ordinary guy gets arrested and thrown in a jail cell with a bunch of thugs who immediately start intimidating him. Does this really happen? Don't the police have a responsibility to protect the guy from the criminals in the jail?

Kris @ 1/29/2015 3:52 AM

I was a police officer - in 2012 my elderly father was assaulted by his only grandson. My 28 yr old nephew smashed my father in the face with a beer bottle. We both got PFAs because my nephew was threatening to kill both of us. My father also wanted him arrested so I helped him into a PD. A week later the suspect's mother filed a complaint with my Chief alleging I misused police computers and lied on official PFA affidavits. My dept had walked me through the PFA process so I was shocked when an IAS was pulled on me. After 2 months of investigating my father and I (DV victims) the complaint was deemed completely unfounded. They had caught my sister in 6 provable lies. I wanted her arrested and they refused. She stalked me throughout 2013 (and to present) and I informed them in writing of every incident. Dad died and at funeral she attacked me and got fake PFA. My PD refused to comply with a judge's order for a gun on duty. Then I lost my job and career. Waiting to hear from ACLU

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