CIVIL RIGHTS: Police Can Be Sued Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Arresting Plaintiff in Safe Location and Releasing Her in Dangerous Neighborhood

Tuesday, August 7, 2012
The author of this is article is John Stone, a legal research attorney with National Legal Research Group in Charlottesville, VA.

Police arrested Christina outside Chicago's Midway Airport.  She had purchased a ticket from Southwest Airlines but was behaving so oddly while waiting to board the airplane that agents called the police, who escorted her from the airport.  Christina walked to the rail and bus terminal of the Chicago Transit Authority, immediately outside the airport, where she started singing loudly, ranting about the price of oil, and screaming at other people, with her face only inches from theirs.  She would not or could not stop, despite multiple requests, leading to her arrest.

Experts in the ensuing litigation concluded that Christina had been in an acute manic phase. She did not tell the police about her mental health background, however, and was uncooperative after her arrest—sometimes refusing to answer questions, sometimes screaming, sometimes providing false or unresponsive answers.  Telephone calls from her mother and her stepfather informed officers in Chicago that Christina had bipolar disorder, but the officers did not believe the stepfather, and the officer who took the calls from the mother failed to tell anyone else or record the information in Christina's file.  While Christina was in custody, some officers thought that she was just being difficult, some thought that she was on drugs, some thought that she was no worse than the run-of-the-mill loud and uncooperative people who do not want to be in custody, and those who thought that she needed mental health care were ignored or overruled.

While detained at a police station, Christina alternated between calm and manic conduct, sometimes chatting amiably and sometimes screaming, chanting rap lyrics, smearing menstrual blood on the cell's walls, and taking off her clothes.  Officers processed the paperwork to release her on an individual recognizance bond.  Christina signed the bond and walked out of the station house.  She had no idea where she was and did not do the most sensible things—hail a taxi or head for a bus station and get out of the area during the remaining daylight.  It was evening, and the police station was close to a public housing project with an exceptionally high crime rate; the police had not returned her cell phone, so she could not easily summon aid; she was lost, unable to appreciate her danger, and dressed in a manner that attracted attention (a cutoff top with a bare midriff, short shorts, and boots); and she was white and well-off while the local population was predominantly black and not affluent, thus, in the court's view, causing her to stand out as a person unfamiliar with the environment and a potential target for crime.

Soon Christina joined a cluster of 15 to 20 people on a street corner outside one of the project's high rise buildings.  She accompanied several young men to an apartment that was vacant and had been taken over as a hangout.  Some of the occupants told her that it was unsafe and that she should leave, but Christina was too confused to act on that advice.  About five hours after the police let Christina go, a man found her in the apartment, forced the others out, and raped her at knifepoint.  People outside tried and failed to break down the door in time to save her.  Trying to escape, Christina jumped out the window, which was seven stories aboveground.  Although she survived the fall, her brain was seriously damaged.  She has undergone years of physical therapy, but her brain functioning is permanently that of a child.

A suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Chicago and 13 police officers (or civilian aides at the police stations) was filed by Christina's mother as Christina's guardian. The district court granted judgment in favor of some defendants but denied others' motion to dismiss.  In an interlocutory appeal, 10 of the 13 individual defendant police officers contended that they were protected by qualified immunity.

The Seventh Circuit reached different conclusions for the various individual defendants, depending on the part they had played in the tragic story and whether the federal constitutional right or rights they had allegedly violated were "clearly established," as must be the case to overcome the qualified immunity defense.  Paine v. Cason, No. 10-1487, 2012 WL 1434961 (7th Cir. Apr. 26, 2012).  The lawsuit alleged violations of three distinct constitutional rights, two of which related to the release of Christina by the police.  First, Christina did not have a clearly established constitutional right for her release to be delayed pending mental health treatment, particularly where her mental condition did not deteriorate because of her being in custody.  However, Christina did have a clearly established due process right for police to not create danger, without justification, by arresting her in a safe place and then releasing her in a hazardous one while unable to protect herself, and she had a clearly established right for police to arrange for medical treatment of her serious condition while her custody continued.  As to both of these rights, the Seventh Circuit found that some of the police officer defendants were not entitled to immunity, so that Christina's mother could proceed with those claims when the case was remanded to the federal district court.

Concerning the constitutional right to not be put in danger by police, the Seventh Circuit noted other scenarios in which such a right had been violated.  One was when police arrested the driver of a car and left the car keys in the hands of an intoxicated adult, who then endangered third parties.  Another occurred in a case in which a police officer stopped a car being driven with its high beam lights on, arrested the driver, and called for a tow truck to have the car impounded; the officer then left the car's passenger stranded in a high crime area.  The passenger walked toward her home until she accepted a ride from an unknown man, who raped her.  In Christina's case, the court was emphatic on the degree to which some of the police officers had put her in harm's way, even if it was a third party, not a police officer, who had most directly caused her injuries:  "They might as well have released her into the lions' den at the Brookfield Zoo."  Id. at *6.


About the Author: The author of this is article is John Stone, a legal research attorney with National Legal Research Group in Charlottesville, VA. This case summary originally appeared on The Lawletter Blog.
 
Tag Words: Civil Rights, federal constitutional right, constitutional rights, Paine v. Cason, Lawletter, National Legal Research Group
 
By: John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group 8/7/2012

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