- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004


The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider whether local governments can be sued for failing to enforce restraining orders in a case that could open the door to thousands of lawsuits.

At issue is whether the Constitution’s 14th Amendment obligates police to protect residents from violence when a local government issues a restraining order and promises its enforcement.

Jessica Gonzales of Castle Rock, Colo., obtained a restraining order to keep her estranged husband away from her three daughters, ages 10, 9 and 7. She contends that the police ignored multiple phone calls for help when Simon Gonzales took the daughters from the front yard of her home one night in 1999.

Eight hours later, Mr. Gonzales showed up at the Castle Rock police station and started a gunfight with officers. He was killed, and the girls were found dead in his pickup truck.

Mrs. Gonzales sued the city for $30 million, citing a due-process violation because Castle Rock did not enforce the restraining order. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, noting that Castle Rock had a duty under state law to respond to her calls, but instead routinely ignored her.

“According to Ms. Gonzales’ allegations, the police never engaged in a bona fide consideration of whether there was probable cause to enforce the restraining order,” the court stated.

Castle Rock officials disagree, arguing in their appeal that the Supreme Court has never allowed lawsuits against public officials when their purported gross negligence permits a child to be harmed by a parent. The Constitution only protects persons against abuses by the government, not third parties, they say.

Nationwide, about 20 states have laws providing for the enforcement of restraining orders, making them vulnerable to lawsuits if Mrs. Gonzales’ claim is upheld, according to the National League of Cities, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. In those states, thousands of protective orders are issued each year.

Oral arguments in the case will be heard next year, with a decision expected by July.

In other action yesterday, the Supreme Court:

• Turned down a bid by assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian to win freedom after five years in prison.

• Let stand the conviction of a Virginia man, Kevin C. Kelly, in the death of his 21-month-old daughter in a sweltering van.

• Said they would schedule arguments soon in a dispute between Alaska and the federal government over ownership of submerged lands in the Glacier Bay area.

• Refused to hear an appeal from a drug manufacturer that sought to limit evidence that fen-phen users want to present in their lawsuits claiming heart-valve damage.

• Refused to step into a dispute over whether Kentucky laws that ban cash as well as postelection donations are constitutionally permissible to battle corruption and campaign fraud.

• Allowed a new trial to proceed for a black man sentenced to death 18 years ago in Pennsylvania in a case in which prosecutors improperly restricted opportunities for blacks to serve on his jury.

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