- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

She was on her way to work and parked in the garage of a Los Angeles office building, as she usually did. Her accounting business was in that building so it was convenient to park there; she paid a monthly fee to do so. But what happened next was anything but routine. As she was preparing to leave her car, a masked assailant came up from behind her. He put a gun to her head, forced her into the back of her car and sexually assaulted her.
Who was responsible for protecting her from this nightmare? The police? The garage operator or owner? The courts? The suspects in such cases are many, ranging from complete strangers to former boyfriends. But the parties responsible for ensuring anyone's safety are few, if any, as case after case shows.
In the case of the Los Angeles accountant, described in court papers only as Sharon P., the victim blamed the garage operator and owner. Underground parking garages are inherently dangerous, she argued in a lawsuit, and therefore the two should have foreseen assaults on their customers. Worse, there had been seven robberies at the bank on the ground floor of the building and numerous crimes in the 50-block area surrounding the business. The garage had darkened areas in which an attacker could hide, and there was a smell of urine that suggested more than business people had daily access to the garage.
The defendants should have done better, Sharon P. said. "Simple things like a clean, brightly lit garage, with working security cameras, and periodic walk-throughs [by existing personnel], all give the appearance that someone cares about this garage and sends a message to any potential criminal to go elsewhere."
Last month the California Supreme Court disagreed. For one thing, it turned out there hadn't been a crime committed in the garage in the preceding 10 years. For another, the state high court said, bank robberies and the smell of urine are not necessarily precursors to rape. Hence, the attack was not clearly foreseeable. "To hold otherwise," the court quoted from a prior decision, "would be to impose an unfair burden upon landlords and, in effect, would force landlords to become the insurers of public safety, contrary to well-established policy in this state."
Consider another horrible case making headlines this month involving a Charles County woman named Janice Lancaster. Her husband had beaten her to the point that she felt obliged to draw up a will. But the courts were of little help to her. After one particularly vicious incident, her husband pleaded guilty to assault and was given 18 months … probation.
She subsequently filed for divorce, but after a violent argument in which her husband yelled at her to get out or she wouldn't make it out, she sought help from the local state's attorney's office. He asked a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Mrs. Lancaster's husband, and the judge did so.
But the court clerk's office didn't get around to working on the warrant. It went 13 days over a long holiday break without being processed, at which point the violent husband who should already have been served the warrant and been in jail shot and killed her. (Laws forbidding him to possess a weapon somehow didn't keep him from getting one.) Then he killed himself. Martha M. Rasin, chief judge of Maryland's District Court, called it a "horrible situation," but added that the time lapse was "normal." Think of the court as the U.S. Postal Service without even the late delivery.
Law enforcement seems the obvious choice to protect women from assaults, but case law suggests otherwise. In an infamous local case, Warren vs. District of Columbia, two women who heard their roommate being assaulted downstairs called the police for help. The police came but left without entering the building. Again the women called, and this time the police didn't bother to dispatch anyone to the scene at all. The attackers, however, heard the women upstairs and assaulted them too … for 14 hours. No police came. The women sued the city, but the courts dismissed their claims saying it was a "fundamental principle" that the government has "no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen."
The same was true in a New York case, Riss vs. City of New York. A woman who telephoned police to beg for protection from her boyfriend sued the city for its failure to protect her from an assault in which he threw lye in her face, blinding her in one eye, damaging the other and scarring her face. The city denied responsibility, and the courts agreed. Complained a dissenting judge, "What makes the City's position particularly difficult to understand is that, in conformity to the dictates of the law, [the plaintiff] did not carry any weapon for self-defense. Thus, by a rather bitter irony she was required to rely for protection on the City of New York which now denies all responsibility to her."
News stories say that today crime rates are declining across the board, but to the victim of such assaults, that's hardly consolation. For her and other women, it only takes one attack to make a crime wave. Sharon P. and others may find that the first step toward protecting themselves is understanding that no one else has a duty to do so.
Email: smithk@twtmail.com

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