When the police let someone off with a warning, and that person ends up causing harm, are the police liable for not doing their jobs? This question is often the center of much heated debate.
For example, the parents of Toni Anderson, a deceased 20-year-old college sophomore, are reportedly contemplating a lawsuit over an officer’s failure to arrest their daughter for DUI in early 2017. Toni was pulled over while clearly intoxicated. Rather than being arrested for DUI, she was told to go get some rest. Unfortunately, Toni crashed her car into a river and drowned. It took authorities nearly two months to find her.
Failure to Protect Claims
Under the law, officers are given quite a bit of discretion, and they must often make judgment calls. When a discretionary call is wrong, and a person causes harm to others due to an officer’s discretion in not making an arrest, an officer can potentially face civil liability. However, these situations are rather limited and require actual action by an officer.
Generally, when individuals sue police for failure to protect, courts routinely side with police. This is because the government does not have a duty to protect individuals. Even if officers fail to show up when called, there will usually not be any liability (unless the failure to show up was due to an illegal motive, such as discrimination). However, If an officer intervenes and makes things worse, there may be liability for due process violations, or simply based upon negligence.
Failure to Arrest Leading to Death
Toni’s parents are expected to claim that their daughter would not have died had the officer arrested her rather than let her off with a warning. This claim, while seemingly valid, has some legal hoops to jump through as it is an unusual wrongful death claim. Since Toni only injured herself, it also begs the question of whether officers are required to protect individuals from themselves (when obvious self harm warnings are present).
It is alleged that the dash cam footage from the night Toni went missing showed her clearly inebriated, though she denied drinking that night. The toxicology report showed that she was on illegal drugs at the time of her death. It’s puzzling why the officer chose not to arrest her or even administer a field sobriety test, but whether it forms the basis of legal liability is a question for the courts.
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