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When Can A Crime Victim Hold A Police Officer Liable For Failing To Protect Them?

December 19, 2018 By Gerald W. Ueckermann, Jr.

In Howard v. Crumlin, decided Nov. 28, 2018, Nicole Enoch placed a call to 911 at about 2:00 a.m.  one morning.  In response, police officer Ben Crumlin was dispatched to her apartment building and attempted to enter the building but found the door locked.  He left the building without making contact with Ms. Enoch.  At some point, Ms. Enoch went to the roof of her apartment building and either jumped, fell or was pushed off.  Her body was discovered later that morning.  A suit was later filed by her mother and her estate alleging that Officer Crumlin and the Montgomery County Chief of Police were liable for the death of Ms. Enoch.  It was alleged that the police officer owed a duty to Ms. Enoch that was breached by failing to investigate the 911 call, failure to protect Ms. Enoch, and failure to enter the building and make contact with her.  The trial court dismissed all claims against the police officers and on appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Special Appeals noted that crime victims who sue the police have to overcome two very high hurdles in order for liability to be imposed: (1) the public duty doctrine; and (2) public official immunity.  Under the public duty doctrine, police officers generally owe a duty to the public as a whole, but not to any particular group or individual.  Thus, a crime victim cannot establish that the police owed a duty to them individually unless they can prove that the police created a “special relationship” with the victim upon which the victim relied.  In order for such a special relationship to exist, the police must have affirmatively acted to protect a specific victim or a specific group of individuals like the victim, thereby inducing the victim’s specific reliance upon police protection.  No such special relationship was found to exist in the Howard v. Crumlin case.

The Howard v. Crumlin court then went on to find that even if there had been a special relationship that imposed a duty upon the police to protect Ms. Enoch, the claim against the police officers would still fail because of public official immunity.  The public official immunity doctrine protects public officials – including police officers – who perform negligent acts during the course of their discretionary, as opposed to ministerial, duties.  The court determined that responding to a 911 call was a discretionary act, not a ministerial one, and therefore the police officers involved in responding to Ms. Enoch’s 911 call could not be held liable.

A 2000 case, Williams v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, had discussed the public duty doctrine and public official immunity together and indicated that a special relationship would negate immunity.  More recently, however, Maryland courts have held that the special relationship exception applies only to the public duty doctrine and does not defeat public official immunity.  The opinion in Howard v. Crumlin emphasizes this point.