Nahmod Law

A DeShaney Danger Creation Case that Survived Summary Judgment

Over the years I have posted many times about the difficulty plaintiffs have in surmounting the no-affirmative duty substantive due process rule of DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). This case declared that government has no affirmative duty to protect or rescue individuals from private harm. See Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 secs. 3:59-3:61 (4th ed. 2017)(West).

As noted in the voluminous case law, there are two possible end-runs around this no-duty rule. First, where there is special relationship between the government and the plaintiff, a very limited category of cases in which the plaintiff is dependent on government and cannot act on his or her own behalf. And second, danger creation, where government itself is not neutral but rather creates the danger to the plaintiff.

But even where an affirmative substantive due process duty has been shown, the plaintiff must go on to show a breach of that duty, or a violation of substantive due process.

Irish v. Maine,  849 F.3d 521 (1st Cir. 2017), and danger creation.

In Irish v. Maine, the former boyfriend of the one of two plaintiffs (the other plaintiff was her mother) broke into her parents’ home, fatally shot her boyfriend, shot her mother, abducted her and engaged in a shootout with police during which another individual was shot fatally. The plaintiff alleged that the rampage began after a police officer left the former boyfriend a voice message notifying him that the plaintiff had made a complaint to police about the former boyfriend’s serious violent crimes against her earlier, and asking him to come in for an interview. This was despite the plaintiff’s explicit request that the former boyfriend not be notified by police because of her concern that such notice would incite further violence against her, which turned out to be true.

Reversing the district court which had dismissed plaintiff’s danger creation substantive due process claim, and had also granted defendants’ qualified immunity motion, the First Circuit remanded for further fact finding. It observed that there was no evidence as to whether the police decision to leave a voice message was in line with police protocol and training. There was also no evidence on exactly what the officers knew about the veracity of plaintiff’s allegations against the former boyfriend, about his propensity for violence and about whether he would likely act on that propensity. According to the First Circuit, these facts were relevant to both the viability of the due process claim and qualified immunity.

Comment

The first question is whether there was a general substantive due process duty imposed on the police to protect the plaintiff from her former boyfriend. The short answer under DeShaney is no. The second question is whether the police in this case had any kind of special relationship with the plaintiff, and here too the short answer is no. The crucial question, then, is whether the police violated substantive due process in creating the danger to the plaintiff by leaving a voice message for the former boyfriend despite the plaintiff’s explicit request that the police not notify him because that would incite him to further violence.

Note that the issue in the First Circuit was not whether the voice message actually caused the former boyfriend’s violent acts; this seems to have been shown. Rather, having thus shown the existence of an affirmative due process duty to protect or rescue though the police creation of the danger, did the plaintiff also show a breach of that duty, namely, a violation of substantive due process? And the constitutionally required state of mind for such a substantive due process violation is deliberate indifference.

This is why the First Circuit remanded. If leaving a voice message was not in line with protocol, this would tend to show deliberate indifference. Similarly, if the police knew about the truthfulness of the plaintiff’s description of her former boyfriend and that he would likely engage in violence against her, that too would tend to show deliberate indifference.

(For more discussions of recent circuit court decisions addressing DeShaney issues, search this blog for “DeShaney”)

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Written by snahmod

August 21, 2018 at 9:33 am

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