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By: Phil Savrin
The recent tragedies of mass shootings have spawned litigation over the civil liabilities of state governments for failing to protect members of the public from harm, particularly when there were advance warning signs that police departments overlooked or ignored. To evaluate whether States can be liable under the Constitution for such conduct we need to reach back 30 years to a decision by the Supreme Court called DeShaney. In that case, county officials had allowed an abused child to remain in a household despite knowledge of mistreatment, after which the boy was left permanently disfigured. In considering a civil rights claim brought on his behalf under the due process clause, the Supreme Court reasoned that the Constitution places limitations on the government’s ability to act and does not affirmatively require it to provide services that benefit the public. It is up to the individuals States to allocate resources to provide for public safety, in other words, as opposed to an obligation mandated by the Due Process Clause. That said, the Supreme Court reasoned that it is only when the State takes some action that puts a person in peril that the Constitution imposes “some corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being.”
Cases applying DeShaney’s reasoning are often heart-wrenching, as they tend to involve very egregious injuries that could have been avoided had law enforcement officers acted on knowledge they possessed. The most extreme example applying DeShaney can be found in the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Town of Castle Rock, where police officers refused the desperate pleas of a citizen to arrest her estranged husband who had violated a restraining order, resulting in the father’s murder of the couple’s three daughters. These harms could have been avoided had the State acted to intercede, yet it is only when the State by its conduct affirmatively puts the person in danger that the State has a constitutional obligation to protect that individual from harm.
Which brings us to the question of mass shootings such as the incidents at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 where a gunman killed 49 people or the high school in Florida in 2018 where a student opened fire killing 17 persons. In lawsuits that followed, allegations were made that government officials either ignored warnings or intentionally failed to act, thereby violating the constitutional rights of the victims. In both circumstances, however, the federal courts applied DeShaney to conclude that without danger created affirmatively by the State’s conduct, there is no constitutional right to protection where the harm begins and ends with the actions of a private citizen.
The absence of a constitutional claim in these circumstances does not, of course, mean that there can be no remedy of any sort. What these cases hold instead is that any such remedy exists by reference to state law as the federal Constitution is a bulwark against governmental interference in the public arena and is not a guarantor of safety for the citizenry.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Phil Savrin at email@example.com.