What would happen if a police officer initiates a pursuit with a fleeing vehicle, then that vehicle crashes, and the officer says, oh well, and drops the pursuit, leaving the scene? He just leaves; doesn’t stop to help; doesn’t call an ambulance; just turns the other direction and heads to Dunkin Donuts? Is that a civil rights violation? You might be surprised.
It was May of this year in Dallas, Texas. Dallas Police Officer Leonard Anderson and his trainee, Officer Darrien Robertson observed a vehicle leaving a gas station with his lights off. They began to pursue and attempted to initiate a traffic stop. But the vehicle fled – lights still off. The police car gets left in the dust, basically. Apparently, the Dallas Police Department has a pursuit policy that provides for officers not to pursue vehicles, unless they’re pursuing a subject believed to have committed a violent felony offense. That appears to have been the case here. As far as I can tell, they began to chase the guy because he left the gas station with his lights off.
Dash cam footage actually captures the officers witness the car wreck, off in the distance, as well as their reactions. Through audio from the officers’ dash camera video, Anderson and Robertson can be heard talking to each other about the crash. Anderson was driving at the time. “Did you see that?” Robertson asked. “That’s his fault,” Anderson replied. A nearby surveillance camera captured a better view of the vehicle, which narrowly missed hitting a pedestrian, jumping the curb and wrecking. Nineteen seconds later, the same camera captured officers Anderson and Robertson pull up to the crash site and promptly make a right hand turn, driving away.
Here’s the raw footage, courtesy of WFAA:
Bystanders at the scene witnessed the police car drive away. Instead, they attempted to help the driver, who was now trapped, his car on fire. Eventually, the two officers returned the scene, after other officers and first responders arrived. The crowd wasn’t happy. They had seen what had happened and were telling everyone who would listen. The officers tried to tell them at one point that they didn’t see what they saw. But they weren’t having it.
Afterwards, the chief of the Dallas Police said he was appalled by the officers’ actions and commended the civilians who helped the crash victim. “I’m embarrassed for the men and women of this department,” Garcia said. “This is not what we stand for.” “Those citizens did an admirable job — and did a job that our officers should have done,” the chief added.
Here’s what happened in the end. Fast forward from May of 2022 to just last week. It was announced by the Dallas Police that Senior Cpl. Leonard Anderson would be terminated as a result of this incident and trainee officer Darrien Robertson, whom Anderson was training at the time, was given a 30 day suspension.
Now here’s the question. Clearly we saw police officers fail to aid someone who needed aid. One of them was fired for it. No doubt that was a department police violation. But was it a civil rights violation under federal constitutional law? Let me know in the comments what you think. This is an interesting issue, and it’s not so easy.
It’s important to remember the basic fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that in general, police have absolutely no to duty to protect us. They can refuse to do their jobs, or be really bad at doing their jobs, and we can’t sue them for it. It’s not a civil rights violation, according to the Supreme Court. This has come up a lot in the context of school cases, where the government has actually exposed children to actual harm, that the children actually suffered, but the courts have refused to allow compensation. It’s come up in CPS and foster home cases. And it’s also come up in domestic violence cases – and to a lesser extent in some pursuit cases.
The Supreme Court has held that government officials cannot be held responsible for harm caused by third parties. In DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. DSS, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), state social workers became aware that a child might be the victim of abuse based on suspicious injuries. They concluded, however, that there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain the child in state custody, so they allowed him to be returned to his father’s custody from the hospital where he was being treated. Later, the father so severely beat the child that he suffered severe brain damage and fell into a life-threatening coma. The child and his mother then filed a § 1983 action against the state social workers, asserting that they failed in their duty to protect the child, thus violating his substantive due-process rights.
The Court made clear that “[a]s a general matter … a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” The Court identified an exception to this general rule, however, specifying that the State does have a duty to protect citizens against private violence when the State has a “special relationship” with that citizen:
[W]hen the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being. The rationale for this principle is simple enough: when the state by the affirmative exercise of its power so restrains an individual’s liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs— e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety—it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause.
It is, therefore, “the State’s affirmative act of restraining the individual’s freedom to act on his own behalf—through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraints of personal liberty”—which constitutionally imposes on the State a duty to protect the restrained citizen from private violence. Doe v. Covington County Sch. Dist., 649 F.3d 335, 271 Ed. Law Rep. 63 (5th Cir. 2011).
So the question is, okay, so they were not technically responsible yet. But they saw the crash. They didn’t call an ambulance. They didn’t provide first aid themselves. Is that a civil rights violation? We’re back full circle to the first issue. The Fifth Circuit has specifically held that no general right to medical care exists; such a right has been found only where there exists a special custodial or other relationship between the person and the state. Kinzie v. Dallas County Hospital District (5th Cir. 2003). Thus we’re back where we started.
While DeShaney makes clear that the state’s mere awareness of a risk of harm to an individual will not suffice to impose an affirmative duty to provide protection, most federal circuits hold that if the state creates the danger confronting the individual, it may then have a corresponding duty to protect. This is known as the “state-created danger” theory/doctrine. Here, however, the Fifth Circuit has “repeatedly declined to recognize the state-created danger doctrine.” Joiner v. United States , 955 F.3d 399, 407 (5th Cir. 2020). Since this occurred in the Fifth Circuit, that’s not going to help.
Thus, here we are. There’s probably no civil rights violation. So is this news to you? Did you know that the federal courts generally hold that police officers have no legal obligation to call an ambulance for you, provide first aid, CPR, etc.? I find that shocking and unacceptable. So it’s important to know the exception. When? When there’s custody or a special relationship. Do you think the officers knew that here and were just playing 4D chess for their insurance company? I don’t think so. But it probably was convenient. That way, the department can just throw these guys under the bus, apologize publicly, and then quietly deny any compensation to the victim.
Now the victim here perhaps didn’t deserve compensation. He did it to himself. He could have killed an innocent person. So I’m just speaking in general. The usual tragedy is that the guy hits a car full of kids and wipes out an entire family. Then the government, similar to what these guys did here, just says, oh well, and takes a right hand turn and drives somewhere else….