Read more about our legal work for rape and molestation victims.
I’ve written several times before how difficult it is to sue the government for failing to do its job, like how you can’t sue the police department for failing to enforce a court order. It’s tough to sue the government even when they wrongly entrap and then kill your son for the trivial ‘crime’ of sports betting. The government doesn’t even need to train its prosecutors in the basics of constitutional law.
“Civil rights” is a tough area in which to practice law, if you’re representing the plaintiffs. There aren’t “typical” civil rights cases, because typical isn’t good enough under the law. The facts need to be extraordinary and egregious. “Shocks the conscience” is the verbage ordinarily used by courts to deny claims:
To this end, for half a century now we have spoken of the cognizable level of executive abuse of power as that which shocks the conscience. We first put the test this way in Rochin v.California, supra, at 172-173, where we found the forced pumping of a suspect’s stomach enough to offend due process as conduct “that shocks the conscience” and violates the “decencies of civilized conduct.” In the intervening 847*847 years we have repeatedly adhered to Rochin `s benchmark. See, e. g., Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U. S. 432, 435 (1957) (reiterating that conduct that “`shocked the conscience’ and was so `brutal’ and `offensive’ that it did not comport with traditional ideas of fair play and decency” would violate substantive due process);Whitley v. Albers, 475 U. S. 312, 327 (1986) (same); United States v. Salerno, 481 U. S. 739, 746 (1987) (“So-called `substantive due process’ prevents the government from engaging in conduct that `shocks the conscience,’. . . or interferes with rights `implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ “) (quoting Rochin v. California, supra, at 172, and Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U. S. 319, 325-326 (1937)). Most recently, in Collins v. Harker Heights, supra, at 128, we said again that the substantive component of the Due Process Clause is violated by executive action only when it “can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense.” While the measure of what is conscience shocking is no calibrated yard stick, it does, as Judge Friendly put it, “poin[t] the way.” Johnson v. Glick, 481 F. 2d 1028, 1033 (CA2), cert. denied, 414 U. S. 1033 (1973).
County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998)(emphasis added). Unfortunately, the lack of a “calibrated yard stick” often leaves civil rights victims at the whim of courts. If the federal district judge or two of the federal appellate judges assigned to a case believe the conduct in question doesn’t “shock the conscience,” then the case is dismissed, without a minute of testimony in front of a jury.
All of those barriers apply to cases even where the government actor — a police officer, parole officer, a prison guard, et cetera — is the one who directly caused the harm. If the harm was caused by someone else, like an abusive spouse the police refused to enforce an order against (the situation in the Gonzales case in the first link), then there are even more barriers. A basic precept of tort law is that there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing harm to another absent a “special relationship” between either the dangerous person or potential victim. Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 315.
It doesn’t take too much of a logical leap to see how a parole board has a “special relationship” with a parolee or how child protective services have a “special relationship” with both the children they’re supposed to protect and the suspected abusers they’re supposed to protect those children from, and some courts have adopted that approach — perhaps most notably, the Supreme Court of Arizona in Grimm v. Arizona Bd. of Pardons & Paroles, 564 P.2d 1227 (1977), but many courts don’t see it that way, particularly not for constitutional claims. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989),
Poor Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying, cowardly, and intemperate father, and abandoned by respondents who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, and yet did essentially nothing except, as the Court revealingly observes, ante, at 193, “dutifully recorded these incidents in [their] files.” It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles — so full of late of patriotic fervor and proud proclamations about “liberty and justice for all” — that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded. Joshua and his mother, as petitioners here, deserve — but now are denied by this Court — the opportunity to have the facts of their case considered in the light of the constitutional protection that 42 U. S. C. § 1983 is meant to provide.
Justice Blackmun’s “Poor Joshua!” lament, though, as a dissent. Joshua wasn’t even allowed to present his case that the Winnebago County Department of Social Services failed him and put him in further danger by leaving him with his father. He lost without his day in court.
That’s what came to mind for me when I read that Jaycee Dugard had sued the United States and a variety of its parole officers (complaint here; a summary here) for a litany of astonishingly lapses in judgment during Phillip Garrido’s parole for rape:
Garrido’s federal parole officers, therapists and counselors described him at various times throughout his federal parole term as follows: ‘a time bomb,’ ‘like a pot boiling with no outlet valve,’ ‘potentially very volatile,’ ‘potential for causing great physical harm is present,’ ‘problems with sexual overtones,’ ‘did not seem honest … as if he was putting on an act,’ ‘possible danger to the community is high,’ ‘major problems are presented in this case,’ ‘there is always threat of repeat [kidnap/rape],’ ‘still seems dangerous to the public … is liable to give little or no warning,’ ‘substantial risk to women,’ ‘is always a threat to women,’ ‘potential rapist.'” …
Despite Garrido’s well-known propensities, federal parole authorities ignored report after report of sexual misconduct by Garrido. For example, Garrido’s parole officers were informed by his 1976 rape victim that shortly after being paroled, Garrido appeared at her workplace and made an alarming comment to her. Inexplicably, the federal parole authorities responsible for Garrido’s direct supervision disregarded the victim’s concerns as mere ‘hysteria’ even though Garrido’s time cards indicated he was not at work during the hours he was alleged to have been seen by the victim. Upon learning of the victim’s statement, Garrido’s own counselor suggested that Garrido be placed on electronic monitoring. Garrido’s parole officer, however, ignored this recommendation and concluded that ‘to subject this individual to electronic monitoring would be too much of a hassle.
The Dugard kidnapping — which, as the complaint alleges, would never happened had the federal government taken the threat Garrido posed towards women seriously — should have become part of the national conversation about the ways that government agencies systematically downplay and under-report rape and sexual assault, but that’s an issue for another day.
For now, there’s the question of the United States’ liability for Dugard’s ordeal. Dugard and her daughters already collected $20 million from the State of California for its role; I don’t know if that reflected an assessment of the merits of her claim or a recognition that the social contract required we do what we can for Dugard and her kids.
For the claim against the United States, it’s a bit surprising to me that Dugard is represented by an entertainment lawyer, rather than a civil rights lawyer, but he’s at least a real litigator — rather than a lawyer who primarily preens on television — and from his complaint it seems that he gets it. He doesn’t bother to allege any of civil rights claims; 42 U.S.C. 1983 isn’t available against the United States in any event, but Bivens is, and Dugard’s complaint disregards those claims and instead alleges various versions of negligence in the decision to parole Garrido and the monitoring of him while on parole.
Dugard splits her negligence claims into five types: negligent supervision, negligent failure to consider all relevant information in reaching a parole decision, failure to conduct a mental health examination of Garrido, failure to treat Garrido’s mental health problems, and failure to provide Garrido’s information to state authorities. The claims are similar to those in another high profile crime, the rape and murder of Imette Saint-Guillen by parolee Darryl Littlejohn. The lawsuit brought by her estate alleged:
Plaintiffs allege that the United States Probation and Pre-trial Services System failed to supervise and control Littlejohn, as required by his sentence and federal statute. Additionally, plaintiffs claim that defendant negligently hired, trained, supervised, and retained its employees, thus resulting in its failure to supervise Littlejohn. According to plaintiff, these failures were the proximate causes of Imette Saint-Guillen’s assault and murder.
The District Court dismissed the negligent hiring claims (coincidentally, Saint-Guillen’s lawsuit was brought by Joseph Tacopina, the same lawyer representing Annie Le’s estate in its negligent hiring and supervision claim against Yale), but permitted the supervision and control claims. After three years of litigation, the claims against the United States settled for a mere $130,000.
I doubt Dugard’s claim will turn out the same. With $20 million (or whatever number she netted from the California settlement) in the bank, and an apparently strong commitment towards getting a public airing of the circumstances surrounding her abduction and imprisonment — an airing that, even despite all of the prior media attention on her, might do some good by detailing how the parole system can fail victims — she’ll likely see this through until the end. The question is if that end will come before a judge dismissing the case on legal grounds or a jury actually hearing and considering the facts.
Sadly, I’m assuming it will be the former. Consider this California case from earlier this year dismissing a similar negligent-parole theory. Civil rights lawsuits of any stripe — even those framed as negligence — often don’t live up to the promise of our civil rights laws.