BOSTON (CN) – In an “extraordinarily painful story, made even more painful by the fact that federal constitutional law is inadequate to address it,” a federal judge ruled that city police may not be held liable for letting a suicidal woman walk out of a hospital alone, and then kill herself.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner’s ruling is rueful, indeed apologetic: “The outcome of this case is determined by the Supreme Court’s decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), a widely criticized case, and various opinions construing it. Since I am constrained by those opinions, I have no choice but to GRANT the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.” (Footnote omitted.)
In May 2005, “Matthew Lewis … called police because his girlfriend Danielle Tarsook had threatened to kill herself,” Gertner wrote. “Police officers went to her apartment, where Danielle agreed to allow the officers to take her to the hospital in an unmarked police car.”
Upon Danielle’s requests, “one of the officers contacted [her] father, Dennis Tarsook, an on-duty police officer in the same town, and asked him to meet Danielle at the hospital. When Danielle and the officers arrived at the hospital, Dennis was already there, waiting outside the building.
“After watching Danielle and her father walk through the entrance into the main lobby, the officers left. Inside the hospital lobby, Dennis and Danielle spoke, then argued. Dennis left and drove away in his patrol car.”
Tragedy followed, as “Danielle went back to her apartment, never having been admitted to the hospital. She committed suicide by hanging herself with an electric cord.”
The administrator of Danielle’s estate, Celeste Niarchos, then sued the City of Beverly and police officers involved in the incident. Niarchos claims that the defendants were negligent and “deliberately indifferent to Danielle’s serious medical needs in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights,” and that “the city failed to train officers in the detection and implementation of rules and regulations to prevent suicide attempts.”
Niarchos also raised state claims, under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, claiming that “the defendants, by threats, intimidation, or coercion, deprived Danielle of her federal and state rights.”
But Gertner found: “Under what has come to be known as the DeShaney doctrine, Niarchos simply had no substantive due process right to affirmative care by the defendants.”
Throughout her ruling, however, Gertner bemoaned the state of the law on this issue, particularly DeShaney v. Winnebago County.
In that case, known as the “poor Joshua” case thanks to Justice Harry Blackmun’s impassioned dissent, the Supreme Court ruled that “state actors generally have no affirmative constitutional obligation to protect citizens from harm caused by private parties,” according to Gertner.
In other words, there is no individual right to police protection, even for a 4-year-old boy such as Joshua DeShaney, beaten to the point of severe mental retardation by his father.
Gertner framed the DeShaney ruling as more callous than “tough” and noted her sympathy with the Blackmun dissent, which criticized the majority opinion as an example of “sterile formalism.”
She spent several pages unraveling the background in the case at issue, in a manner highly critical of the DeShaney precedent.
“Danielle had a history of mental health issues,” Gertner, and had been hospitalized for anorexia nervosa and other disorders.
“Dennis claims that the problem was Danielle’s eating disorder, which was the only mental health problem he observed in his daughter. [However,] Lewis portrays Danielle as emotionally troubled during the last months of her life, noting that before her hospitalization in April of 2005, Danielle not only ceased eating; she cried constantly.”
A minor exception to the DeShaney rule may have saved Niarchos’ claim. State actors do “have an affirmative ‘duty to protect’ a person in ‘limited circumstances,’ including those where the state has incarcerated or involuntarily institutionalized the person,” Gertner wrote.
Niarchos thus claimed that on the day of Danielle’s suicide, the state had held her in “functional custody” by imposing limitations on her freedom of movement.
However, “In the context of suicide cases, courts, including the First Circuit, have declined to impose on police officers or other state actors a constitutional duty to protect a victim where the victim was not under arrest, incarcerated, or institutionalized,” Gertner wrote. She then recited a litany of similarly tragic cases in which police were not found liable.
“In the instant case, Danielle was not arrested, incarcerated, or institutionalized. Nor did the police exert physical force on her.” Danielle was taken to the hospital, but she was not admitted to the hospital that day.
“While this case is extraordinarily tragic on so many levels, I cannot ascribe legal responsibility to the defendants. The law is simply otherwise. I must find that the police did not restrain Danielle’s “freedom to act on h[er] own behalf,” DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 200, and, hence, Danielle was not in the state’s custody. Therefore, Danielle had no constitutional right to the state’s protection.” (Brackets in opinion.)
Niarchos’ battle may continue in state court, as the Gertner found that, with the federal suit dismissed, “The non-federal claim is one in which there is no independent basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction. Without the federal claim, I decline to consider the state claims.”