Brief Fact Summary.
Gonzalez (Plaintiff) obtained a court order requiring her estranged husband to stay away from her and their three daughters. When her husband took the children without permission, Plaintiff contacted the Castle Rock (Defendant) Police Department several times throughout the night, seeking the arrest of her husband and return of her children. Defendant’s police officers did not take action in response to Plaintiff’s complaints and Plaintiff sued for violating the Due Process Clause by depriving her of the property right granted by the restraining order without due process. Plaintiff’s husband ultimately murdered the three children.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A restraining order does not grant a property interest in its enforcement on the obtaining party for purposes of the Due Process Clause when police enforcement is discretionary.
Plaintiff sought and received a restraining order against her estranged husband, ordering him to stay away from her and their three daughters. The order included language to law enforcement officials dictating that such officials “shall use every reasonable means to enforce this restraining order.” Law enforcement was told to arrest the restrained party when it had probable cause to believe the restrained person has violated the restraining order. This language was a restatement of a state law describing law enforcement duties related to the crime of violation of a restraining order. While the restraining order was in effect, Plaintiff’s husband took their three daughters in violation of the order. Plaintiff contacted the Defendant police department and reported the violation. The officers told her there was nothing they could do and that she should call again if the children were not returned by 10 pm. Plaintiff’s husband called her at 8:30 pm to tell her he had the children at an amusement park. Plaintiff again notified the police and asked them to arrest her husband. The police officers again told her to call back at 10 pm. Plaintiff called at 10 pm and was told to call again at midnight. Plaintiff called at midnight and was told that an officer was coming to her home. No officers arrived, so Plaintiff went to the police station to file a report at 12:50 am. The officer made no efforts on behalf of Plaintiff’s complaint and instead went to dinner. At 3:20 am, Plaintiff’s husband arrived at the police station and opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun he had purchased earlier in the evening. He was shot and killed by responding officers. Police then found the bodies of his three deceased daughters in his pickup truck. Plaintiff sued Defendant, alleging that she had a property right in the enforcement of the restraining order and that the municipality’s failure to enforce the order violated the Due Process Clause when it violated her property right without due process by acting in accordance with an official policy or custom of ignoring violations of restraining orders and tolerating the failure to enforce such orders by its police officers. Plaintiff further alleged that the town’s actions were willful, reckless, or grossly negligent. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. [The remainder of the procedural posture is not included in the casebook excerpt.]
Does a person who receives a restraining order have a property interest in police enforcement of that order where enforcement is discretionary?
(Scalia, J.) No. A restraining order does not grant a property interest in its enforcement on the obtaining party for purposes of the Due Process Clause when police enforcement is discretionary. Not every government “benefit” carries with it a property interest in that benefit. To have a property interest in a benefit, a person must have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it. Claims of entitlement to a benefit come from existing rules or independent sources, such as state law, and do not exist when officials have the discretion to either grant or deny the benefit. In this case, the state statute that laid out law enforcement duties in enforcing restraining orders did not make enforcement mandatory. Enforcement is within police discretion, as is the longstanding custom. If the statute wanted to make enforcement mandatory, it would use stronger language than directing the use of “every reasonable means to enforce a restraining order” or directing the officers to “arrest . . . or . . . seek a warrant.” Under this language, a police officer would likely have the discretion to decide that even with probable cause to believe there was a violation, the circumstances weigh against enforcement in a particular instance. The need for such discretion is apparent in this case, where the location of the restrained party was unknown. The language of the statute requires only that police seek a warrant. Plaintiff does not specify which means of enforcement—arrest or warrant—she was entitled to and this uncertainty weights against finding the duty to be mandatory. Even if the police were required to arrest, or if impracticable, seek a warrant, the issue is that seeking an arrest warrant is procedural. Procedure alone cannot support a property interest. Even if the statute made enforcement mandatory, Plaintiff would still not necessarily have a legitimate claim of entitlement because laws making government action mandatory can serve legitimate purposes other than granting a benefit on a specific class of people. Finally, even if Plaintiff had a legitimate entitlement to enforcement of the restraining order, this would not necessarily create a property interest for due process purposes. This entitlement would have no monetary value and would arise incidentally, not out of a government service or benefit, but out of a function that government has always performed—arresting people when probable cause exists to believe they have violated the law. Plaintiff does not have a property right protected by the Due Process Clause. Judgment for Defendant. [The remainder of the disposition is not included in the casebook excerpt.]
(Stevens, J.) The state here created an entitlement to police protection, which the Constitution allows a state to do. The court of appeals held that the state had granted Plaintiff an entitlement to mandatory individual protection by the police department and the majority errs in failing to follow that holding. Even if this Court was right not to follow the lower court’s decision, it should have certified the question to the state’s highest court. Statutes like this one were intended to eliminate police discretion in this area and were intended to benefit the narrow class of people who obtain restraining orders. The majority’s conclusion that a citizen’s interest in the government’s commitment to provide enforcement in certain specific circumstances is not a property interest is wrong. A citizen’s property interest in a government commitment to enforce such an order is as real and worthy of protection as the citizen’s interest in any other important government service. The state statute’s use of the word “shall” demonstrates that the legislature intended enforcement to be mandatory. It is unclear what stronger indication the majority thinks should be used. Under the law, the police are required to provide enforcement of the restraining order and do not have the discretion to ignore violations. The majority focuses instead on what type of enforcement is required. An entitlement may still exist where the content of that entitlement varies depending on the situation. Police enforcement of a restraining order is a government service that is of the same value as other government services. This case should be treated the same as if Plaintiff had hired private security to protect her family from her husband. She clearly would have had a property interest in the contract in that scenario. Because Plaintiff’s entitlement is based on a statute and a judicial order instead of on a formal contract does not provide a rational basis for failing to see it as a protected property right.
(Souter, J.) The Due Process Clause only protects substantive rights. Plaintiff is instead claiming a right in a state-created process. Although process can protect substantive rights, the process alone does not create a substantive property interest. Finding for Plaintiff would blur the line between the property right that is protected and the process created to protect it and would federalize all mandatory state-law procedural direction to law enforcement.
This opinion extends the precedent established in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989). In that case, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that “[N]othing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State’s power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. . . . [I]t’s language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State . . . .” A state’s failure to protect an individual from violence by a private citizen is not a violation of the Due Process Clause. Without an express, unambiguous declaration of legislative intent to do otherwise, the Supreme Court will not read broad government programs and policies as granting legally enforceable rights.