A Parkland sheriff’s deputy who failed to confront gunman Nikolas Cruz the day of the Parkland massacre will face 11 counts related to child neglect and more. Traditionally, the Supreme Court has held that police officers do not have a duty to intervene on behalf of the public to stop a crime already in progress. Since these precedents have been established at the highest level of the judicial branch of the government, there is no way that the Parkland deputy is going to be held criminally liable for these charges, right?
The precedent established by the Supreme Court applies to personal injury lawsuits and negligence claims. Several individuals have filed lawsuits against police departments for their failure to intervene in specific situations. In one case, a woman who had taken out a restraining order on her estranged ex-husband called the police saying that the man was lurking around her home. Eventually, the husband made off with the two children, killed them, and then died in a hail of bullets from police officers. The mother filed a personal injury lawsuit against the police department stating that they were negligent for not enforcing the terms of the restraining order. She lost the case because police officers cannot be forced to intervene on behalf of the public and do not owe them any specific duty of care.
The sheriff’s deputy was widely criticized for barricading himself into a safe space for over 45 minutes while students were shot to death by a disgruntled classmate.
A very bad, experimental case
The Supreme Court precedent will force the prosecution into taking a novel approach to the charges. Since police officers cannot be held accountable for something they failed to do, the prosecution is attempting to label the defendant as a “child caregiver”. A child caregiver is someone with guardianship or custody of a child. A police officer may be a “child caregiver” to their own children, but they are never a “child caregiver” to anyone else’s. The prosecution is an attempt to skirt the SCOTUS precedent that prevents duty-of-care prosecutions against police officers.
Duty of care prosecutions
While we can all agree that the sheriff’s deputy was negligent in the colloquial sense of the term, there is no legal definition that seems to make sense here. For a negligence prosecution to be successful, the law must show that the defendant had a duty of care. Since Supreme Court precedent refuses to impute that duty of care on law enforcement, the prosecution can’t either. The charges will move forward, and may even result in a conviction, but will be vacated on appeal. In this case, filing a losing case on the taxpayer’s dime at least gives the appearance that the local government cares about what happened, but that may be the extent of its usefulness.
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