Township not Responsible for Store Employee’s Death

In a recent United States Court of Appeals case in Michigan, the court discussed the immunity of police officers when the complaint was based on a violation of due process and a claim against the township for failure to train officers.

On the night in question, a burglar alarm went off at a store. Police officers responded, and a store employee gave its key to the officers to investigate the alarm.

After completing their search, the officers assured the store owner that no one was on the premises. The store owner expressed her suspicion to the officers that someone was still in the building and asked them to check the upstairs area.

The officers assured her that they had searched the upstairs and the warehouse area and that no one was there. The police advised the owner to call a board-up company to secure the front door and drove away.

Unfortunately, the police were wrong. The employee stayed in the store to wait for the arrival of a board-up company to secure a shattered door, walked into the refrigerator room and was killed by an intruder still in the store.

The plaintiff’s widow and personal representative of the deceased’s estate filed suit against the township and the officers in their individual and official capacities. The widow and representative alleged that by failing to perform a thorough search and making false assurances about the safety of the building, the officers violated the decedent’s substantive due process right to personal security and bodily integrity.

The defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure was granted by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on the grounds of qualified immunity and that there was no constitutional violation.

On appeal, the circuit court sustained the lower court’s decision that the township could not be held liable without a constitutional violation. The court pointed out that although the states do not have an affirmative duty under the due process clause to protect citizens from private acts of violence, this court identified two exceptions to the general rule.

First, under the special relationship exception, a state may have an affirmative duty to protect an individual against private acts of violence when the state restrains the individual from acting on his own behalf, as when the state takes the individual into custody.

Second, under the “state-created danger” exception, the state may be liable in non-custodial settings for “affirmative acts … which either create or increase the risk that an individual will be exposed to private acts of violence.”

The court pointed out that according to the testimony, the owner testified that the officers “really thought that the person was gone.” Therefore, at most the evidence suggested that the officers were negligent in their search, and subsequent representations were an insufficient basis upon which to state a due process claim.

Even assuming the officers violated the decedent’s right to substantive due process, reasonable officers in their position would not have been on notice that a clearly established constitutional right was being violated. Therefore, a summary judgment was considered appropriate.