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Disappointing Supreme Court Decision for Battered Women

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Issue 28, Summer 2005

Disappointing Supreme Court Decision for Battered Women
by Sheena Kapoor, MPLP Summer Law Clerk

On June 27, 2005, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in Town of Castle Rock, Colorado v. Gonzales. In this 7-2 decision, the Court held that there is no 14th Amendment property interest in "police enforcement of restraining orders," and, accordingly, there is no Due Process violation when a police officer does not enforce a restraining order. This decision reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit decision on the issue. This holding comes as somewhat of a disappointment, since many battered women rely on restraining orders against their abusive partners, to keep them safe. This decision places less pressure on police officers to ensure that restraining orders are enforced.

Respondent, Gonzales, brought this case as a result of a tragic incident. Respondent and her abusive husband had been going through a divorce, and a restraining order was in place, allowing limited contact between the husband and their three children. On June 22, 1999, Respondent realized that her three children were missing from the yard, where they had been playing. Respondent suspected her husband, who was not suppose to be in contact with the children at that time, had taken them. She immediately called the police, but was told to call back if they were not returned in three hours. When she confirmed that her husband had taken the children, she again called the police station, but again nothing was done. She repeatedly called at the times instructed, but no help was provided. Finally, at midnight, Respondent went down to the police station, since her children had not returned. Again, nothing was done. At 3:20am, her husband arrived at the police station, and opened fire. Another police shot back, killing the husband. Respondent's three daughters were found murdered in the husband's car trunk. Respondent then brought this claim because the police officers had failed to make any effort to enforce the restraining order, and had such effort been made, the children may not have been murdered.

Respondent argued that her rights had been violated under both the 14th Amendment and Colorado law. According to Colorado law, police are expected to "use every reasonable means to enforce a restraining order." However, such actions are not mandatory. Respondent argued that the police department violated Colorado law since they did not respond in a timely manner to her complaints. Respondent contends that the police officers should have contacted the Denver police or went to search for the children, neither of which were done. Further, Respondent claimed that having police enforce restraining orders is a property interest protected under the 14th Amendment. Thus, since the restraining order was not properly enforced, Respondent claims that it was a Due Process violation.

This case was taken to the United States Surpeme Court, and Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Breyer. In order for Gonzales to have prevailed, she would have to show that she was denied a benefit that she was entitled to. Enforcing the order would need to be a "protected entitlement." Justice Scalia stated that not everything that may be considered a benefit will be entitled to Due Process protection, and in order to be considered a benefit, government officials cannot have personal discretion to grant or deny the benefit. The Court did not believe that Colorado law made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory, and the Courts have recognized that police officers do have discretion in this area. Had there been an entitlement for enforcement of restraining orders, the Colorado statute would have stated so. Further, Colorado law "gave police a considerable level of discretion in such matters," since "a well established tradition of police discretion has long co-existed with apparently mandatory arrest statutes." The Court found that there was no property interest in having the police enforce the restraining order against Respondent's husband, and there was no violation of Colorado State law. However, that "does not mean that States are powerless to provide victims with personally enforceable remedies."

Justice Souter issued a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Breyer. According to Justice Souter, a State cannot simply create a property right, just as it cannot diminish such a right once created. In all of the prior cases, "the property interest recognized in our cases has always existed apart from state procedural protection before the Court has recognized a constitutional claim to protection by federal process." If a due process protection was found in the Gonzales case, then there would no longer be a distinction between the property protected and the process that protects it. Further, Justice Souter agreed with the majority in that there is a need to "recognize and preserve the traditional discretion afforded law enforcement officers." Thus, since police officers are given discretion, their actions in this case were justified.

Finally, Justice Stevens dissented, and was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Stevens disagreed with the method of analysis the Court used, arguing they failed to follow Federal law. Further, the Court overturned the Appeal Court's decision on the matter, yet it failed to show that the Judge's interpretation of the Colorado statute was incorrect. Three main flaws in the majority's analysis were pointed out. First, the Court had placed great weight on statutes that mandate police power but are known to preserve police discretion. Next, the Court failed to consider that the order was intended to provide protection for respondent and her children. Finally, the Court was incorrect in concluding that a citizen's interest in government's protection in certain circumstances does not resemble any "traditional conception of property." Further, a minimum requirement for due process is "that the relevant state decisionmaker listen to the claimant and then apply the relevant criteria in reaching his decision." In this case, these minimum requirements were not even met, and, thus, a violation should have been found.

This was a decision that would be critical for those suffering from domestic abuse, and a favorable outcome was anticipated. However, with this decision, victim advocates need to "reassure the public that restraining orders are still effective for preventing domestic violence." Respondent had taken appropriate steps to escape from an abusive relationship, yet the police had failed to assist her, and, now, there is no remedy for the lack of police involvement in enforcing the restraining order. However, effective advocacy may convince law enforcement officers to use their discretion and arrest respondents who violate protection orders. In addition, protective orders can be enforced through show of cause proceedings when law enforcement fails to act.