(CN) - Texas police officers have immunity from claims that they improperly detained a woman, instead of trying to help, after her toddler was strangled in a soccer net, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Ave Marie Cantrell had called 911 on Oct. 2, 2007, when she woke up from a nap to find her 21-month-old son, Matthew, trapped in a backyard soccer net.
After Ave cut the net off her boy's twitching body, she carried Matthew into the house with her other son, 4-year-old Creighton, and laid him on the sofa.
When Officers Clayton Dacey and Kevin McGee arrived at the Cantrell home in Murphy, Texas, they claim Matthew was not breathing and had no pulse. But the Cantrells say the officers prevented Ave from performing CPR and quickly treated the house as a crime scene.
Paramedics arrived and took Matthew to a nearby hospital Dallas. In the meantime, Lt. Adana Barber came to the house, as did the children's father, Michael Cantrell.
Because Ave was allegedly screaming and making suicidal comments throughout the ordeal, the officers decided to take her to the station for her own safety.
After Ave met with a chaplain at the police station and provided a statement, she was taken to a hospital in McKinney, Texas, for emergency medical detention.
Matthew died days later when taken off life support, and his death was deemed an accidental hanging.
Ave, Michael and Creighton sued the city of Murphy, East Texas Medical Center, the responding officers and Police Chief William Myrick in Texas' Eastern District for violations of their Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights.
The family claimed that Officers Dacey and McGee denied Matthew life-saving aid at the scene and delayed the paramedics, violating his right to due process. The family also says the police violated the Fourth Amendment by hauling Ave off to the station.
In October 2010, a federal judge concluded that Dacey and McGee were not eligible for summary judgment.
But the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit found otherwise last week, relying on the Supreme Court's handling of DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services. In that controversial 1989 case, which involved a 4-year-old boy, Joshua DeShaney, beaten to the point of severe mental retardation by his father, the court said there is no individual right to police protection.
"Seeking to avail themselves of the DeShaney special relationship exception, the Cantrells argue that, like individuals who are in foster care or who are otherwise in the custody of the state, Matthew had a special relationship with the officers," Stewart wrote. "According to the Cantrells, this special relationship, along with a corresponding duty of care and protection, was created when the officers took 'custody' of Matthew by physically separating him from his mother. The officers breached this duty, the Cantrells contend, when the officers failed to administer aid and delayed treatment from paramedics"
But the three-judge panel took a different view. "This line of cases is materially indistinguishable, and therefore could not have provided reasonable officials in the officers' position with notice that they had an affirmative constitutional duty to provide medical care and protection to Matthew," Judge Carl Stewart wrote for the court.
Ave also lacks a Fourth Amendment claim since the officers had probable cause to detain her because of her repeated suicidal comments, the panel concluded.
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