Asked in Criminal Law, Personal Injury and Civil Rights for Washington

Q: Do I have a criminal or civil case? Officer did not act on my request for help, weeks later child killed someone.

Child has been sentenced for murder however I asked the police chief for help just weeks & days before my child commited murder. He conspired with my husband to keep it quiet about stabbing months prior & ignored my pleas for help.

I specifically told the chief that when the moms afraid, it's time to be afraid. He acknowledged this at my deposition for my child's charges. I think he and social services who I also contacted before the murder,, failed me & my child. Curious if it would be civil or criminal? What kind of lawyer to find?

1 Lawyer Answer
Eric Gene Young
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  • Civil Rights Lawyer
  • Santa Rosa, CA

A: Unfortunately, as upsetting as this must be, the facts you described are not likely to constitute either a civil or criminal matter for you. On the civil side, law enforcement officers in federal actions are entitled to qualified immunity which shields them from liability unless they knowingly violate a clearly-established constitutional right. This is a difficult standard to meet, and many decisions made by law enforcement simply do not rise to the level where qualified immunity can be overcome. Although this doctrine has come under scrutiny recently in the wake of the George Floyd case and other police shootings, at this time, it still exists at the federal level. In California, there are also similar state law immunities which preclude liability for "discretionary acts" by government officials. Deciding whether to intervene to assist an emotionally disturbed or even violent child is a discretionary decision, so it is likely state law civil liability would also be precluded.

This analysis applies equally to any social services workers or agencies involved in your matter. In fact, the US Supreme Court held in Deshaney v. Winnebago County Social Services (1989) that a social services agency was not liable for knowingly returning a child to his violent father who subsequently beat the child to death. Sadly, there is not always a remedy for every wrong.

The larger issue you would have if you chose to pursue this matter civilly is that you were not harmed by the failure of law enforcement or social services to act. If I understand your fact pattern, your child killed someone else. The estate or family of the deceased person might have standing to pursue a civil action, but you do not because the harm did not occur to you. However, even the estate or family of the deceased person would not likely prevail on these facts either.

Having said that, the estate or family of the deceased person might file a lawsuit against you as the parent of the child who committed the murder, particularly if you knew your child had violent tendencies. This is an evolving area of law, particularly in light of mass shooting events where parents gave guns to their children. You might raise in defense your unsuccessful efforts to get assistance from law enforcement or social services.

As for law enforcement or social services failure to assist you being a crime, it simply is not a crime for either agency to decide, in their discretion, not to assist someone. "Protect and serve" is just a slogan. It is not a mandatory duty on the part of law enforcement.

I encourage you to continue exploring your options with other attorneys, however, particularly attorneys who handle civil rights matters or specialize in cases against law enforcement.

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