The Supreme Court Rules that Municipalities are Not Liable for Failing to Enforce Restraining Orders Overshadowed by several higher profile Supreme Court decisions, the Town of New Castle v. Gonzales decision, which was handed down the same day as the Kelo decision, was a major victory for local governments. The question presented in the Town of New Castle case was whether an individual who has obtained a state-law restraining order has a constitutionally protected property interest in having the police enforce the restraining order when they have probable cause to believe it has been violated. Facts of the Case The Town of New Castle case arises out of the tragic deaths of Ms. Gonzales’ three children. Ms. Gonzales had obtained a restraining order against her husband in conjunction with her divorce proceedings. The restraining order prevented Ms. Gonzales estranged husband from molesting or disturbing her or her children. On June 22, 1999, Ms. Gonzales’ husband took her three children while they were playing outside the family home. Over the next eight hours, Ms. Gonzales repeatedly contacted the Castle Rock Police Department and requested that the police enforce the temporary restraining order. At approximately 3:20 a.m., Ms. Gonzales’ husband arrived at the police state and opened fire with a handgun. The police returned fire, killing him. Inside his pickup truck were the bodies of Ms. Gonzales’ three daughters, whom he had already killed. Ms. Gonzales sued the Town of New Castle, claiming that the town violated the Due Process Clause because its police department had “an official policy or custom of failing to respond properly to complaints of restraining order violations” and “tolerate[d] the non-enforcement of restraining orders by its police officers.” The Court of Appeals ruled against the Town of New Castle, concluding that Ms. Gonzales had a “protected property interest in the enforcement of the terms of her restraining order” and that the town had deprived her of due process because “the police never ‘heard’ nor seriously entertained her request to enforce and protect her interests in the restraining order.” The Court’s Reasoning The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that a State may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The procedural component of the Due Process Clause does not protect everything that might be described as a “benefit”: “To have a property interest in a benefit, a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire” and “more than a unilateral claim of entitlement to it.” A benefit is not a protected entitled if government officials may grant or deny it in their discretion. Thus, the outcome of the case was dependent upon whether Colorado law made enforcement of the restraining orders mandatory. The Court reasoned that because the principle of law-enforcement discretion, even in the presence of seemingly mandatory legislative commands is deeply rooted in American jurisprudence, a true mandate requiring police to act on the restraining order would require some stronger indication from the Colorado Legislature.
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