Domestic Violence—The Laws and the Courts - Landmark Legal Decisions
police protection husband city
Many victims of domestic violence have sought legal protection from their abusive partners. This section summarizes the outcomes of several landmark cases that not only helped to define judicial responsibility, but also shaped the policies and practices aimed at protecting victimized women.
Baker v. The City of New York
Sandra Baker was estranged from her husband. In 1955 the local Domestic Relations Court issued a protective order directing her husband, who had a history of serious mental illness, "not to strike, molest, threaten, or annoy" his wife. Baker called the police when her husband created a disturbance at the family home. When a police officer arrived, she showed him the court order. The officer told her it was "no good" and "only a piece of paper" and refused to take any action.
Baker went to the Domestic Relations Court and told her story to a probation officer. While making a phone call, she saw her husband in the corridor. She went to the probation officer and told him her husband was in the corridor. She asked if she could wait in his office because she was "afraid to stand in the room with him." The probation officer told her to leave and go to the waiting room. Minutes later, her husband shot and wounded her.
Baker sued the City of New York, claiming that the city owed her more protection than she was given. The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, in Baker v. The City of New York (1966), agreed that the city of New York failed to fulfill its obligation. The court found that she was "a person recognized by order of protection as one to whom a special duty was owed… and peace officers had a duty to supply protection to her." Neither the police officer nor the probation officer had fulfilled this duty and both were found guilty of negligence. Since the officers were representatives of the city of New York, Baker had the right to sue the city.
Another option desperate women have used in response to unchecked violence and abuse is to sue the police for failing to offer protection, alleging that the police violated their constitutional rights to liberty and equal protection under the law.
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This clause prohibits states from arbitrarily classifying individuals by group membership. If a woman can prove that a police department has a gender-based policy of refusing to arrest men who abuse their wives, she can claim that the policy is based on gender stereotypes and therefore violates the equal protection laws.
THURMAN V. CITY OF TORRINGTON. Between October 1982 and June 1983 Tracey Thurman repeatedly called the Torrington, Connecticut, police to report that her estranged husband was threatening her life and that of her child. The police ignored her requests for help no matter how often she called or how serious the situation became. She tried to file complaints against her husband but city officials ignored her.
Even when her husband was finally arrested after attacking her in full view of a policeman and after a judge issued an order prohibiting him to go to his wife's home, the police continued to ignore Thurman's pleas for help. Her husband violated the order and came to her house and threatened her. When she asked the police to arrest her husband for violating his probation and threatening her life, they ignored her. She obtained a restraining order against her husband, which he violated, but again the police failed to take any action.
On June 10, 1983, Thurman's husband came to her home. She called the police. He then stabbed her repeatedly around the chest, neck, and throat. A police officer arrived twenty-five minutes later but did not arrest her husband, despite the attack. Three more policemen arrived. The husband went into the house and brought out their child and threw him down on his bleeding mother. The officers still did not arrest him. While his wife was on the stretcher waiting to be placed in the ambulance, he came at her again. Only at that point did police take him into custody. Thurman later sued the city of Torrington, claiming she was denied equal protection under the law.
In Thurman v. City of Torrington (1984), the U.S. District Court for Downstate Connecticut agreed, stating:
City officials and police officers are under an affirmative duty to preserve law and order, and to protect the personal safety of persons in the community. This duty applies equally to women whose personal safety is threatened by individuals with whom they have or have had a domestic relationship as well as to all other persons whose personal safety is threatened, including women not involved in domestic relationships. If officials have notice of the possibility of attacks on women in domestic relationships or other persons, they are under an affirmative duty to take reasonable measures to protect the personal safety of such persons in the community.
[A] police officer may not knowingly refrain from interference in such violence, and may not automatically decline to make an arrest simply because the assailant and his victim are married to each other. Such inaction on the part of the officer is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.
For the federal district court, there could be little question that "such inaction on the part of the officers was a denial of the equal protection of the laws." The police could not claim that they were promoting domestic harmony by refraining from interference in a marital dispute because research had conclusively demonstrated that police inaction supports the continuance of violence. There could be no question, the court concluded, that the city of Torrington, through its police department, had "condoned a pattern or practice of affording inadequate protection or no protection at all, to women who complained of having been abused by their husbands or others with whom they have had close relations." The police had, therefore, failed in their duty to protect Tracey Thurman and deserved to be sued.
The federal court jury awarded Thurman $2.3 million in compensatory damages. Almost immediately, the state of Connecticut changed the law, calling for the arrest of assaultive spouses. In the twelve months following the new law, arrests for domestic assault almost doubled from 12,400 to 23,830.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that "no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law," protecting against state actions that are unfair or arbitrary. It does not, however, obligate the state to protect the public from harm or provide services that would protect them. Rather, a state may create special conditions in which that state has constitutional obligations to particular citizens because of a "special relationship between the state and the individual." Abused women have used this argument to claim that being under a protection order puts them in a "special relationship."
DESHANEY V. WINNEBAGO COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES. The "special relationship" and the gains women achieved in Thurman lost their power with the Supreme Court case of DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989). A young boy, Joshua DeShaney, was repeatedly abused by his father. Despite repeated hospitalizations, the Department of Social Services insisted that there was insufficient evidence to remove the child from the home. Eventually, the father beat the boy into a coma, causing permanent brain damage. The boy's mother, who did not have custody, sued the Department of Social Services for not intervening. The Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause does not grant citizens any general right to government aid and that a "special relationship" is a custodial relationship. The court's decision noted, "The facts of this case are undeniably tragic" but "the affirmative duty to protect arises not from the state's knowledge of the individual's predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitations that it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf, through imprisonment, institutionalization, and other similar restraint of personality."
The court concluded,
It is well to remember once again that the harm was inflicted not by the State of Wisconsin, but by Joshua's father. The most that can be said of the state functionaries in this case is that they stood by and did nothing when suspicious circumstances dictated a more active role for them. The people of Wisconsin may well prefer a system of liability that would place upon the State and its officials the responsibility for failure to act in situations such as the present one…. But they should not have it thrust upon them by this Court's expansion of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although this case concerned a child, it also applied to abused women. Following DeShaney, women have been unable to win a case on the basis of due process or equal protection. Jena Balistreri's case against the police department of Pacifica, California, began before DeShaney, but unfortunately for her, it was not finally decided until after the DeShaney precedent had been established.
BALISTRERI V. PACIFICA POLICE DEPARTMENT. Jena Balistreri first called police in February 1982 when her husband beat her. The police refused to arrest him, and one of the officers stated that Balistreri deserved the beating. In November 1982 Balistreri obtained a restraining order forbidding her husband from "harassing, annoying, or having contact with her." Despite repeated vandalism that included crashing his car into her garage and firebombing her home, the police refused to take Balistreri seriously. She turned to the courts in an effort to force police to restrain her husband.
Two out of the three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, both women, found that Balistreri's case might convince a jury that the police were guilty either of "intentional harassment" or "reckless indifference to her safety." The police's conduct, the judges wrote, "strongly suggest[s] an intention to treat domestic abuse cases less seriously than other assaults, as well as an animus against abused women," and their behavior may "violate equal protection."
Regarding the due process claim, Balistreri argued that she had a special relationship with the state because the police knew she was being terrorized and she had a protection order. Two judges ruled she might have a claim to a "special relationship" and the state might, after all, have "a duty to take reasonable measures to protect Balistreri from her estranged husband."
The third judge dissented, stating that the restraining order "heightens the state's awareness" of her risk of harm, "but the mere existence of the order" created no "special relationship" to the state and imposed no constitutional duty to protect her. The case was initially returned to the lower courts for further proceedings. After DeShaney, however, the court reversed its decision and threw out Balistreri's due process claim.
MACIAS V. IHDE. During the eighteen months before her estranged husband Avelino Macias murdered her at her place of work, Maria Teresa Macias had filed twenty-two police complaints. In the months before her death, Avelino Macias sexually abused his wife, broke into her home, terrorized, and stalked her. The victim's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sonoma County, California, Sheriff's Department, accusing the department of failing to provide Macias equal protection under the law and of discriminating against her as a Hispanic and a woman.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the case because Judge D. Lowell Jensen said there was no connection between Macias's murder and how the sheriff's department had responded to her complaints. Although the lower court had dismissed the family's claim, on July 20, 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the earlier decision and ruled that the lawsuit could proceed with the discovery phase and pretrial motions. Judge Arthur L. Alarcon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit conveyed the unanimous opinion of the court when he wrote, "It is well established that there is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen. There is a constitutional right, however, to have police services administered in a nondiscriminatory manner—a right that is violated when a state actor denies such protection to disfavored persons."
After this decision, the case proceeded to trial. On June 18, 2002, Sonoma County agreed to pay $1 million to the Macias family in order to settle the case. The settlement agreement did not include an admission of any wrongdoing by the county. Nevertheless, domestic violence activists lauded the result. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, stated, "This settlement shows that law enforcement cannot get away with denying equal protection under the law to victims of domestic violence."