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When Can You Sue The Police for Not Doing Their Job?

It’s pretty well-settled that there are situations in which you can sue the police for misconduct. However, this always involves affirmative misconduct on the part of the wrongdoer. Basically, in order to do something wrong, the assumption is that you have to, well, do something.

Can you sue the police and local prosecutors for failing to do something they were allegedly obligated to do? That’s a trickier issue.

When the Police Make a Mistake, and the Price is High

What if you were the victim of a sexual assault, the police arrested your alleged attacker, but released him for lack of evidence, and he later turned out to be a serial killer with a body count of at least 11 victims? Because that’s just what happened in Cleveland.

policeIn December of 2008, Anthony Sowell was arrested after a woman, with obvious physical injuries, approached a police car and told the officers that Sowell had attacked and attempted to rape her. Despite the victim’s full cooperation and the fact that witnesses vouched for the veracity of her story, the police and city prosecutors determined that the victim was not credible, and released Sowell without charges.

At that time, six of Sowell’s eleven alleged victims were still alive. The families of five of those victims are now suing the Cleveland Police Department and the city prosecutor’s office for wrongful death, arguing that if they had done their jobs, Sowell would have been thrown in prison for years, and those six women would be alive today.

That may very well be true, as a factual statement. But does it make the police liable for the deaths of Sowell’s victims? That’s not an easy question.

There’s no doubt that this case is absolutely tragic, and Sowell’s crimes are mind-boggling in their depravity. Furthermore, it’s fairly safe to say that those six women would be alive if Sowell had been charged with rape, convicted, and imprisoned.

However, the law governing civil liability for failure to act is complicated, more so when applied to government entities. But, hypothetically, let’s look at this case from the angle most favorable to the plaintiffs. Let’s assume that the ordinary law of negligence applies here, with no special rules for government agencies, and no distinction between acts and omissions.

How Does the Legal System Handle Police Error?

Were the police and prosecutors negligent in their handling of Sowell’s arrest? Without having all the facts, it’s hard to say. The city prosecutor may well have been correct in his conclusion that there was simply not enough evidence to justify rape charges against Sowell. But let’s suppose that they had an open-and-shut case, and failed to prosecute Sowell out of simple indifference to justice for his victim.

That would definitely be bad. But, remember, for a negligence action to succeed, there has to be a causal connection between the negligent conduct, and the consequences have to have been reasonably foreseeable.

It’s unlikely that the police had any way of knowing that Sowell was a serial killer when he was arrested on suspicion of rape, and therefore no way of knowing that he would go on to murder six people after being released.

On the other hand, he did have an extensive criminal record involving sex crimes against women. The police probably assumed that he would re-offend in the near future, and maybe hoped they’d be able to nail him then. Arguably, that should be enough to support liability: it was perfectly foreseeable that Sowell would have committed more crimes after he was released. The fact that the police might not have been able to foresee the exact nature and severity of the crimes shouldn’t be relevant.

Of course, all of this depends on the initial question discussed earlier: did the police act reasonably when they released Sowell for a lack of evidence? If this case goes to trial, we’ll presumably find out.

In any event, there’s a good chance that we’ll learn that the Cleveland police and city prosecutor’s office were so under-funded and shorthanded that they simply couldn’t make Sowell’s case a priority, given the information available at the time. If this turns out to be true, it will be, in a way, the most tragic of possible results.

It will mean that, if a police department and prosecutor’s office had been properly supported by the state and local government, a serial killer may have been prevented from killing 6 innocent people.

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  • pam gragg

    my father abducted my mother and shot at her she called 911 when the sherrif department showed up they talked to them for an hour and did nothin they left him with all his guns when he was threatning murder suwicide within hours she was shot and he was dead i need help from a lawyer please help do something before it happens again

  • Doris Chappel

    On April 23, 2016, my home burned and I was accused and arrested for Arson. When I left my home on the night of said date there was No Fire. June 5, 2017, I was incarcerated and charged on a Secret Indictment by the Grand Jury with only the testimony of the prosecutor and witness Fire Chief Joseph Lynn Murphy. I was charged without a Preliminary Hearing in General Session and the Judge or Magistrate did not sign off on the case binding/bounding it over to Grand Jury to determine Probable Cause Determination. I have been denied Motions to a Preliminary Hearing and, there was not an Affidavit attached to the Warrant. There are pictures that were taking by the investigators that the previous Attorney wanted to Suppress and Exclude from the Jury that can set me free of the Arson Allegations. “I am asking someone to Challenge the Law Issue in this case according Tennessee Criminal Procedures. Fire Chief Joseph Lynn Murphy is not certified to file charges. He is not a Proprietary, Possessory or have Interest in said structure at 84 Short Drive according to TCA 39-14-301.

  • phyllis renea bishop

    When police and their team are called for 911 incidents usually there is crime being committed or within the structure for 911 to be called for attention. What is the importance of _police report.Any individual can call 911 and say_What’s your emergency and address,however,when all that occur the question remain to be asked_Where is the back-up assistance or agent.How many times have the same incident occurred at the same address without the victim filing injunction or restraiting order for protection if need to do so. It’s not the police fault if they don’t collobrate after.It’s your custom duty to back up your own assistance especially if you fee your life is being threaten.For example_Domestic Violence _ a police officer can be called to the scene to help the alleged victim and as the other party to be removed from the residence,however, the victim must move forward with injunction for protection and if something occur the record will show that the victim followed through on protecting herself and if crime become to admission then the victim have a chance for being not indicted.

  • Phyllis

    The question to be answered _When can you sue the police _ only if you are the victim. What if Anthony Sowell is innocent to the crime on December 20018 . The therocial reasoning for the evidence not to be admissible if he had the right attorney based on this statement from the assaulted victim- She approached the car and told the police officer that Sowell attacked her/attempted to rape her_ The first question probably came to mind- call for back up-arrest Sowell- get police women to work up hospital order for possible rape victim to see if any DNA semen was present – Secondly for a man to be accused of 11 other women deaths their must be some type of admissible evidence to hold him down to confinement: Back up police history, that could involve domestic violence relationships,drugs, arrest history, the list exhibits could be numerous if the alleged criminal record is both substantive and procedural. For some reason,I believe that guy is innocent even though I don’t have full report.He doesn’t read my mind as being criminal intentious person maybe drug pusher.I would have to conclude his entire background history to complete my therotical reasoning to this man .Second time is of the essential here-think about it who ever his attorney is_did he resolve 11 women and how is the time frame.This case is high-security if he haven’t been already incarnrated.

  • phyllis renea bishop

    Sowell case is like _Bill Cosby– the only thing is that Cosby didn’t kill his victims_He wine and dine and they all had fun. He should have been free of no charges -simply because the victims waited to long to bring there information to the table.After statue of limitation have completed on a crime in most states with no enough evidence sufficient to produce indictment or _Order for Judgment then the case is throw out against the defendant or criminal at opposition during admission time.As the court of rule _admissible evidence is binding but when their is no evidence in the following category:Demonstrative/Physical/Indirect then what is their to prove.Argument back and forth relating to allege statements from both the plaintiff and the defendant to where the court and jury have to rule on preliminary injunction that sometimes reveal freedom to the defendant and sometimes_Order of judgement to plaintiff and the defendant still becomes free to rearrange his/her life.So what is law without grain of sand—–balance the therotical statements with proof and evidence to get indictment and jury verdict. This really not by area of practice ,however,I had 6 classes within this structure.My practice is social security clamaints and representation, but either Cosby case was publication to public and Stowell must be too-because the margin of law can not indict that man for murder of 11 women without the fundamental fairness of law to prove it and that means he can be free with family member having chains or monitor around his feet and ankles at all times that monitors his where abouts no matter who he is with that includes family members and full 24 hour report until that investigation is complete. There is several loop holes in both cases- money could be the virtue but justice is the law.It make me think about Orange Juice and he was incident.You can’t be two places at one time unless you got a ghost and riding in airplane for six hours while other things were taking course.Thank about it

  • Stacy Mercer

    My mama was shot by boyfriend after a 911 call was made because he had pulled a gun 2 months before he killed her. When she called police they did nothing even tho he is a felon in possession of firearm. They took him and his alchol to a neighbor’s house and let him off. Being a felon he should have been arrested but was not. He is also a confidential informant for the police. Can we bring a civil suit

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