The Police: No Duty To Protect Individuals

The Police: No Duty To Protect Individuals

(Warren v. D.C.)


The Court's Decision: Appellants Carolyn Warren, Miriam Douglas, and Joan Taliaferro in No. 79-6, and appellant Wilfred Nichol in No. 79-394 sued the District of Columbia and individual members of the Metropolitan Police Department for negligent failure to provide adequate police services. The respective trial judges held that the police were under no specific legal duty to provide protection to the individual appellants and dismissed the complaints for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Super.Ct.Civ.R. 12(b)(6). However, in a split decision a three-judge division of this court determined that appellants Warren, Taliaferro and Nichol were owed a special duty of care by the police department and reversed the trial court rulings.

The division unanimously concluded that appellant Douglas failed to fit within the class of persons to whom a special duty was owed, and affirmed the lower court's dismissal of her complaint. The court en banc, on petitions for rehearing, vacated the panel's decision. After rearguments, notwithstanding our sympathy for appellants who were the tragic victims of despicable criminal acts, we affirm the judgments of dismissal.

Appeal No. 79-6

The Gruesome Facts of the Case: In the early morning hours of March 16, 1975, appellants Carolyn Warren, Joan Taliaferro, and Miriam Douglas were asleep in their rooming house at 1112 Lamont Street, N.W. Warren and Taliaferro shared a room on the third floor of the house; Douglas shared a room on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter. The women were awakened by the sound of the back door being broken down by two men later identified as Marvin Kent and James Morse. The men entered Douglas' second floor room, where Kent forced Douglas to sodomize him and Morse raped her.

Warren and Taliaferro heard Douglas' screams from the floor below. Warren telephoned the police, told the officer on duty that the house was being burglarized, and requested immediate assistance. The department employee told her to remain quiet and assured her that police assistance would be dispatched promptly.

Warren's call was received at Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters at 6:23 a. m., and was recorded as a burglary in progress. At 6:26 a.m., a call was dispatched to officers on the street as a "Code 2" assignment, although calls of a crime in progress should be given priority and designated as "Code 1." Four police cruisers responded to the broadcast; three to the Lamont Street address and one to another address to investigate a possible suspect.

Meanwhile, Warren and Taliaferro crawled from their window onto an adjoining roof and waited for the police to arrive. While there, they saw one policeman drive through the alley behind their house and proceed to the front of the residence without stopping, leaning out the window, or getting out of the car to check the back entrance of the house. A second officer apparently knocked on the door in front of the residence, but left when he received no answer. The three officers departed the scene at 6:33 a.m., five minutes after they arrived.

Warren and Taliaferro crawled back inside their room. They again heard Douglas' continuing screams; again called the police; told the officer that the intruders had entered the home, and requested immediate assistance. Once again, a police officer assured them that help was on the way. This second call was received at 6:42 a. m. and recorded merely as "investigate the trouble" -- it was never dispatched to any police officers.

Believing the police might be in the house, Warren and Taliaferro called down to Douglas, thereby alerting Kent to their presence. Kent and Morse then forced all three women, at knifepoint, to accompany them to Kent's apartment. For the next fourteen hours the women were held captive, raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon each other, and made to submit to the sexual demands of Kent and Morse.

Appellants' claims of negligence included: the dispatcher's failure to forward the 6:23 a.m. call with the proper degree of urgency; the responding officers' failure to follow standard police investigative procedures, specifically their failure to check the rear entrance and position themselves properly near the doors and windows to ascertain whether there was any activity inside; and the dispatcher's failure to dispatch the 6:42 a. m. call.

Appeal No. 79-394

No Duty to Protect: On April 30, 1978, at approximately 11:30 p.m., appellant Nichol stopped his car for a red light at the intersection of Missouri Avenue and Sixteenth Street, N.W. Unknown occupants in a vehicle directly behind appellant struck his car in the rear several times, and then proceeded to beat appellant about the face and head breaking his jaw.

A Metropolitan Police Department officer arrived at the scene. In response to the officer's direction, appellant's companion ceased any further efforts to obtain identification information of the assailants. When the officer then failed to get the information, leaving Nichol unable to institute legal action against his assailants, Nichol brought a negligence action against the officer, the Metropolitan Police Department and the District of Columbia.

The trial judges correctly dismissed both complaints. In a carefully reasoned Memorandum Opinion, Judge Hannon based his decision in No. 79-6 on "the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen." See p. 4, infra. The duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists. Holding that no special relationship existed between the police and appellants in No. 79-6, Judge Hannon concluded that no specific legal duty existed. We hold that Judge Hannon was correct and adopt the relevant portions of his opinion. Those portions appear in the following Appendix.[fn1]

Judge Pryor, then of the trial court, ruled likewise in No. 79-394 on the basis of Judge Hannon's opinion. In No. 79-394, a police officer directed Nichol's companion to cease efforts to identify the assailants and thus to break off the violent confrontation. The officer's duty to get that identification was one directly related to his official and general duty to investigate the offenses. His actions and failings were solely related to his duty to the public generally and possessed no additional element necessary to create an overriding special relationship and duty.[fn2]

Here the effort to separate the hostile assailants from the victims -- a necessary part of the on-scene responsibility of the police -- adds nothing to the general duty owed the public and fails to create a relationship which imposes a special legal duty such as that created when there is a course of conduct, special knowledge of possible harm, or the actual use of individuals in the investigation. See Falco v. City of New York, 34 A.D.2d 673, 310 N.Y.S.2d 524 (App. Div. 1970), aff'd, 29 N.Y.2d 918, 329 N.Y.S.2d 97, 279 N.E.2d 854 (1972) (police officer's Page 4 statement to injured motorcyclist that he would obtain name of motorist who struck the motorcycle was a gratuitous promise and did not create a special legal duty); Jackson v. Heyman, 126 N.J. Super. 281, 314 A.2d 82 (Super.Ct.Law Div. 1973) (police officers' investigation of vehicle accident where pedestrian was a minor child did not create a special legal duty to child's parents who were unsuccessful in their attempt to recover damages because police failed to identify drivers of vehicle). We hold that Judge Pryor did not err in dismissing No. 79-394 for failure to state a claim.

In either case, it is easy to condemn the failings of the police. However, the desire for condemnation cannot satisfy the need for a special relationship out of which a duty to specific persons arises. In neither of these cases has a relationship been alleged beyond that found in general police responses to crimes. Civil liability fails as a matter of law.