Friday, October 11, 2013

The law does not provide relief for every injustice

It's a rude awakening for law students when they first learn that the government had almost no affirmative right to protect you from harm. This principle draws from common-law, and the Supreme Court said in the DeShaney case (1989) that Due Process Clause offered no protection under horrible facts involving a boy who was badly beaten by his father. This case reacquaints us with that rule.

The case is Velez v. City of New York, decided on September 18. Velez was a government informant who told the lawmen where the criminals were. When the cops went to the the apartment of some drug/weapons criminals, Velez was standing in the hallway for some reason (he had appeared unexpectedly). The criminals must have seen Velez even though the police shunted him aside. Velez was later shot and killed outside the apartment. His deathbed confession said that "Sonny shot me." Sonny was the guy that Velez had initially called the police about. The jury ruled for the police and found that the police did not owe Velez any duty of care under state negligence law.

The Court of Appeals (Lynch, Lohier and Carney) affirms. The results are tragic, but the law does not require the police to protect you unless there is a "special relationship" between you and the police. Here is the law governing special relationships:

To establish a special relationship beyond the duty that is owed to the public generally, four elements must be present: (1) an assumption by the municipality, through promises or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on behalf of the party who was injured; (2) knowledge on the part of the municipality’s agents that inaction could lead to harm; (3) some form of direct contact between the municipality’s agents and the injured party; and (4) that party’s justifiable reliance on the municipality’s affirmative undertaking.

You may think there was such a relationship since Velez was an informant and he was killed during a raid, but the jury found that the officers had no knowledge that their inaction could lead to harm to Velez. Without that knowledge, there was no special relationship. The fact that Velez was a confidential information does not mean as a matter of law that he had a special relationship with the police."Although a municipality 'owes a special duty to use reasonable care for the protection of persons who have collaborated with it in the arrest or prosecution of criminals,' such a duty attaches only 'once it reasonably appears that [the collaborators] are in danger due to their collaboration.' Thus, the fact that Velez had provided information to the police does not, by itself, establish the existence of a special duty; whether such a duty exists depends on ... factors [that include] the officers’ knowledge of a danger to Velez and reliance by him on police protection." The jury found no such special duty, and the Court of Appeals says the record supports that finding.

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