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Cops Not Shielded From Lawsuit

June 1, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to shield two California policemen from a lawsuit seeking to hold them legally responsible for the 1994 death of man they encountered after responding to a 911 call.

The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that said the two officers are not immune from being sued by the man’s family because they left him ``in a more dangerous position than the one in which they found him.″

In their appeal, the officers had urged the nation’s highest court to use their case to decide whether such a ``danger enhancement″ exception exists to the general rule that police and other government officials have no duty to protect citizens from private harm.

Juan Penilla was on the porch of his Huntington Park, Calif., home the morning of May 15, 1994, when he became seriously ill while attempting to go inside. His neighbors and a passerby called 911 for emergency medical assistance and tried to help him until paramedics arrived.

Huntington Park police officers Joseph Settles and Ioane Tua arrived first. They examined Penilla and found him to be in grave need of medical care.

According to sketchy court records, the officers canceled the request for paramedics, broke the lock and door jamb on the front door of Penilla’s home and moved him inside. They then somehow locked the door and left.

The next day, family members found Penilla dead on the floor inside the house. He had died of a respiratory failure.

Penilla’s family sued the two officers, alleging they violated his due-process rights by placing him in danger through deliberate indifference to his medical needs.

The officers sought qualified immunity from the lawsuit, depending heavily on a 1989 Supreme Court decision that said police and other government officials have no constitutional duty to protect people not in their custody from harm.

States may create such a duty but the Constitution does not demand it, the court said back then in immunizing from a federal lawsuit social workers who released a young boy to an abusive father who beat him so badly that serious brain damage resulted.

The court said in that ruling that the government played no part in creating the dangers the young boy faced ``nor did it do anything to render him any more vulnerable to them.″

Some federal appeals courts have interpreted that phrase in the 1989 Supreme Court decision to mean that government officials can be held legally responsible if they add to the danger someone faces from private sources.

``The officers’ alleged conduct ... clearly placed Penilla in a more dangerous position than the one in which they found him,″ the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last June in refusing to kill the lawsuit.

``The critical distinction is ... the stark one between state action and inaction in placing an individual at risk,″ the appeals court said.

In the appeal acted on today, the two officers argued that ``the potential for liability gives public employees a strong incentive to refrain from socially beneficial activities.″

The case is Settles vs. Penilla, 97-664.

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