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Law Enforcement’s Failure to Properly Investigate Death

Terry Sides successfully defended an Alabama city and several of its law enforcement officials in a federal court lawsuit which charged them with mishandling the investigation of an alleged murder.

In February 2017, the city received a 911 call from a witness who reported that the deceased had shot himself inside his own home. When first responders arrived at the scene, the deceased was found on the kitchen floor with a fatal gunshot wound to the back of his head. The bullet had exited through the front of his head and through the roof of the home. The deceased’s body was found positioned with his head underneath a chair and table in the kitchen, and the gun which was allegedly used in the death was found several feet above and away from the deceased’s body on the countertop of the kitchen island. The gun was in a de-cocked condition. Following an autopsy, in which no gunshot residue was found on the deceased’s hands or clothing, the medical examiner ruled that the death was a suicide.

In November 2017, the estate of the deceased filed suit claiming that, rather than committing suicide, the deceased had actually been murdered. The suit was filed against the city, its current chief of police, its chief of police at the time of the incident, several of the city’s police officers who were involved in the city’s investigation of the death, and a fictitious defendant designated as “Killer John Doe,” who plaintiff alleged was the murderer of the deceased. The named individual defendants were all sued in their individual capacity.

Plaintiff alleged that the position of the deceased’s body, the location of the gun, and the condition of the gun were all inconsistent with a suicide but were consistent with the deceased having been murdered. Plaintiff alleged that but for a number of failures by the city and its police officers in investigating both the death and the scene of the death, the murderer would have been identified, arrested and prosecuted, and such would have assisted plaintiff in seeking redress against the murderer for the wrongful death of the deceased.

Based on these allegations, plaintiff purported to state federal claims against the city and police officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 for denial of the constitutional right of access to the courts; a State-created danger; failure to implement appropriate investigative policies, training methods, and practices; and a civil conspiracy which violated the deceased’s civil rights. Plaintiff also stated wrongful death and negligence claims against Killer John Doe.

In response to the lawsuit, the city and police officers sought dismissal of all plaintiff’s claims, arguing, among other reasons, that plaintiff had not been deprived of a constitutional right, the lawsuit failed to state cognizable claims of municipal liability, and plaintiff’s claims against the officers were barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The court agreed and fully dismissed the case.

The court recognized that plaintiff lacked standing to assert its State-created danger claim because, as an estate and not a natural person, plaintiff could not show any actual injury. Regarding the access to courts claim, the court found that plaintiff had not suffered a deprivation of this constitutional right because the law is clear that law enforcement officers have no affirmative duty to investigate in the first place. The court also determined that neither the city nor its two police chiefs had liability for failure to train, supervise and implement appropriate investigative policies because plaintiff had failed to show an existing policy or practice of the city of alleged faulty death investigations, notice of any need for training (much less that the chiefs had been deliberately indifferent about such), and any causal connection between the chiefs’ alleged actions and plaintiff’s claimed constitutional violation Finally, the court held that even if it was assumed that plaintiff had suffered a violation of some constitutional right, such was not clearly established within the particular contours of this case at the time of the officers’ challenged conduct, so plaintiff’s claims against the officers were barred by the rule of qualified immunity.

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