Sorry, can't stop this murder, I have places to be.
November 18, 2020 5:58 AM   Subscribe

I’m frequently reading about law enforcement in the US choosing not to enforce certain laws, like mask mandates, gun control restrictions, immigration checks etc.. This made me wonder if police officers are actually legally required to enforce laws. As in, can they be sued if they fail to do that, and what leeway do they have? If a police officer is witnessing a crime like genocide/ murder/ arson/ theft/ public urination and does not respond to it, are they in some way liable fort he consequences?

Here in germany there exists the concept of „unterlassene Hilfeleistung“, which basically states that if you witness an accident or something similar and you are able to help without endangering yourself you have to help and you can be even sent to jail if you don’t. Though this is not partial to law enforcement.
Are there similar laws in the US?
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: i just listened to this recent podcast episode of radiolab, no special duty. they dig into the legality with good sources and conclude that no, there is no legal requirement for police in the states to enforce the law. it was an interesting show. recommended!
posted by tamarack at 6:12 AM on November 18, 2020 [11 favorites]


Best answer: Some places in the US have what are known as "Good Samaritan" laws, which are used to shield bystanders from liability if they attempt to help a victim. For example, if I dislocate your shoulder while pulling you out of a car crash, you can't then sue me for hurting you. However, those laws don't compel people to provide aid.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:20 AM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Here is a relevant court case. This doctrine is commonly cited by pro-handgun folks in the US as a reason they carry - the police can help you if they feel like it, but in the end you're on your own.
posted by ftm at 6:21 AM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


I came by to recommend the episode of radiolab linked above. Essentially, nope!
posted by ChuraChura at 6:25 AM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Generally, if a police officer fails to do their job, they can suffer job consequences -- they can be fired, demoted, suspended, reprimanded or some other punishment. There could be political punishments, too, if the action is based on a policy set forth by an elected official.

Police officers may be sued for their actions or failure to act, but demonstrating liability is an exceptionally high bar. They can be sued for Negligence, for example. To prove negligence, you have to demonstrate that the defendant had a duty to do (or refrain from doing) something, they breached that duty, and it caused damages. (The law is a little different in each state, but these are generally the elements.) To prove that you, a citizen, were damaged by a police officer failing to act, you have to demonstrate all of those things. Assuming you are allowed to sue (see below), you have to demonstrate why you were damaged by the police officer's failure to act more than by the person acting in the first place.

In addition, there is a concept of "Qualified Immunity" which applies to government officials generally, which prohibits personal liability for many actions taken while on the job (i.e., you can't sue the mayor for her official actions, unless the government allows such suits). There has been a lot of talk about Qualified Immunity, especially as it applies to police officers, in the last few months.

So the Government will (again, generally) allow you to sue if a government worker hits you with their car, but for stopping your business from being robbed, probably not, as there could be reasons why they didn't act.
posted by China Grover at 6:35 AM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Best answer: The general term for this is prosecutorial discretion. A good example is getting pulled over for speeding and getting a warning instead of a speeding ticket. Law enforcement has a great deal of leeway. One limit is equal protection under the 14th Amendment which requires a showing of "both that the passive enforcement policy had a discriminatory effect and that it was motivated by a discriminatory purpose" under the standard in this case.
posted by exogenous at 7:29 AM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Not only do police officers not have a general duty to enforce laws or protect people, they are not even obligated to enforce court orders. The key Supreme Court case is Castle Rock v. Gonzales. In that case, a court granted a woman a restraining order against her abusive husband. The order included a "NOTICE TO LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS" stating "YOU SHALL USE EVERY REASONABLE MEANS TO ENFORCE THIS RESTRAINING ORDER" (capitalization in original).

After the order was issued, the man kidnapped the woman's three children. The woman called the police multiple times and went to the station in person. The police did nothing. Shortly thereafter the man went to the police station and was killed in a shoot-out. The bodies of the three children were discovered in his vehicle.

So, to sum up: a court specifically ordered the police to enforce a restraining order. The police refused to do so, and it led directly to a shoot-out and the kidnapping and murder of three children.

The Supreme Court held that 1) enforcement of the order was not mandatory, 2) even if it were mandatory, there was no right to sue, and 3) even if there were a right to sue there would be no damages (i.e. the police would not owe any money).

if you witness an accident or something similar and you are able to help without endangering yourself you have to help and you can be even sent to jail if you don’t

In general in the United States there is no "duty to rescue", unless you were the one who caused the danger in the first place or if you have a special relationship to the person (e.g. parents have a duty to rescue their children); it does not include the police.

There are a couple of states with a very limited duty to rescue, but it is basically limited to calling for help, and the penalty is only a small fine.
posted by jedicus at 8:16 AM on November 18, 2020 [8 favorites]


Best answer: And for the sake of shining some light on the extreme end of this trend: there's a reasonably significant movement called constitutional sheriffs, which holds that the county sheriff is the ultimate determinant of the constitutional validity of any given law. This came up in Washington State last year, and this year one of those sheriffs was our Republican candidate for Governor. So not really all that fringe. These days they're refusing to enforce mask mandates.
posted by Bryant at 9:40 AM on November 18, 2020


The general term for this is prosecutorial discretion.

No, sorry, that's a specific term that only applies to prosecutors, not police.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:02 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Best answer: The point is in common law jurisdictions, courts decide whether a law has been broken or not. In many cases, police can only take action to allow courts to decide whether to prosecute. It's not 100% clear whether a law has been broken until a court makes a ruling and therefore its difficult to say if police have not been enforcing a given law.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:04 PM on November 18, 2020


No, sorry, that's a specific term that only applies to prosecutors, not police.

That's not what I recall from law school (admittedly a while ago now). Got a citation? The article I linked support what I posted.
posted by exogenous at 5:15 AM on November 19, 2020


The point is in common law jurisdictions
There are other common law jurisdictions beyond the USA, and the law for England and Wales (common law) is clear that in certain situations the police have an obligation to act, the main one being if a life is in danger.
posted by Vortisaur at 5:32 AM on November 19, 2020


That's not what I recall from law school (admittedly a while ago now). Got a citation? The article I linked support what I posted.

You might be right -- I think that it has narrowed in meaning over time and/or is used narrowly in academic writing, but having looked, it seems that it is also defined more broadly by some sources.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:53 AM on November 19, 2020


« Older Why are there Creature Reports in only some...   |   cis woman wanting to get hormones assessed Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments