(CN) – The family of a Pennsylvania woman shot to death by her boyfriend can sue the man’s father, a 15-year veteran officer whose service weapon was involved in the slaying, a federal judge ruled.
After Andrea Arrington claimed that her boyfriend, Aaron Michael, was harassing and threatening her, in July 2009, a court in Ridley Township granted her a protection order. The order evicted Michael from the Chester home the couple shared with their son and forbade him from accessing a firearm. Within a week, there was a warrant out for the arrest of Michael, who had continued harassing Arrington while living at the home of his father, John Michael, a veteran officer with the Chester Police Department.
When his father left for a Florida vacation, and left his service weapon ammunition at the house, Michael shot Arrington nearly a dozen times and was then killed in a confrontation with police. Arrington died from her injuries.
Arrington’s estate sued the city of Chester and Michael’s father, claiming that the officer negligently left the weapon available to his son, despite knowledge of the threats, the protection order and the arrest warrant.
U.S. District Judge Curtis Joyner refused to dismiss the civil rights claims for due process violations and negligent training and the City of Chester, stating that the estate “sufficiently pled that Arrington’s harm was the foreseeable and fairly direct result of state action.”
“It is clearly established that an officer is liable under the state-created danger doctrine when the officer is aware of the risk of grave harm and is responsible, at least in part, for creating that risk,” Joyner wrote. “Officer Michael knew his son was threatening Andrea Arrington, knew his son was ordered by the court to stay away from her and knew his son was violating that order by continuing to threaten Arrington. In light of these circumstances, Officer Michael chose to store his service weapon and ammunition at home with his son, unattended. A reasonable officer would know these actions were unlawful.”
Because Officer Michael had full knowledge of possible danger, but still “left his firearm and ammunition, ostensibly unsecured and unattended, at his home where his son resided … a plausible claim [exists] that Arrington’s death was the foreseeable and direct result of Defendant Officer Michael’s actions.”
“Mere negligence is insufficient to sustain a state-created danger claim,” Joyner added, but “Officer Michael’s alleged behavior, if proven true, shows deliberate indifference or a willful disregard for Arrington’s safety.”
The 12-page decision also states that Officer Michael “made a conscious choice to store his service weapon at his home and not at the police station” before traveling out of state.
“One could reasonably infer Defendant Officer Michael knew his son posed a grave risk to Arrington’s safety but nonetheless chose to leave his son at home with a firearm, indifferent to Arrington’s safety,” Joyner wrote. “The officer failed to act appropriately in the face of a known risk.”
The judge also upheld the negligent-training claim against Chester. “From the facts alleged, one can reasonably infer that the city failed to train its officers on the safe and secure storage of service weapons and that the city was deliberately indifferent to the problem,” he wrote. “Defendant Officer Michael’s alleged actions suggest the city of Chester had inadequate policies and procedures to assist officers facing conflicting familial and official duties.”