US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeal of Fifth Circuit’s Dismissal of Lawsuit for State Endangerment in Death of Mother of Man Whom Police Attempt to Detain for Mental Illness

Saenz et al. v. City of McAllen, Texas, et al., 396 Fed. Appx. 173, (5th Cir. 2010), pet. for cert. denied April 4, 2011

The United States Supreme Court has declined to review an unpublished Fifth Circuit opinion that granted qualified immunity to police officers who put the mother of a man with mental illness in the line of fire when attempting to subdue him for civil commitment. The estate and surviving relatives of an elderly woman sued the City of McAllen, Texas and individual police officers in a § 1983 action for allegedly violating her substantive rights under the due process clause. Police had summoned the elderly mother to the scene after they had tried and failed to extricate her adult son for mental health commitment from the house in which he had barricaded himself. The police knew he had a gun, was agitated, had made death threats to family members that day and was not taking his medications. He had previously killed his wife with an ax. Police allegedly took the mother who could not walk unassisted out of the car and placed here in front of the door, instructing her to urge her son to come out while police, wearing bullet proof vests, hid behind her with guns ready. When the son emerged, police opened fire. The mother was caught in the middle and was shot multiple times.

The Supreme Court has held that as a general rule state officials have no constitutional duty to protect an individual from private violence. Where, however, the state through affirmative exercise of power acts to restrain individual liberty, the state creates a “special relationship” which imposes a constitutional duty to protect the individual from danger, including private violence. The Fifth Circuit held that the “statecreated-danger” theory of liability was not clearly established in that circuit at the time of this incident and therefore the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The United States Supreme Court declined to review this decision.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 4