Police NOT Liable in Drowning Death of Handcuffed Escapee
Hermann v. City of Louisville, 114 Fed. Appx. 162 (6th Cir. 2004) involved the death of Louis Hermann following his escape from police while handcuffed. Louis was arrested after being disruptive at a free outdoor concert in Louisville’s City Park, which is adjacent to the Ohio River. Louis had been acting up at the concert and was asked by an officer to leave. When he refused to do so, he was arrested and handcuffed behind his back. The officer, along with a detective also working security at the concert, walked Louis to an area where paperwork would be compiled. After being patted-down, Louis, who was standing, asked if he was going to jail. When officers responded that Louis was, in fact going to jail, Louis fled on foot and jumped into the Ohio River. Officers immediately called for EMS and the Fire Department’s rescue team to respond.
One of the issues included the fact that the police officers took no steps at attempting a rescue while awaiting EMS and Fire personnel and prevented a civilian who claimed to have rescue experience from entering the water. One officer reported contemplating a rescue but decided it was too dangerous. A second officer reported that he could not swim and had not been trained in “river rescue” and “wouldn’t dare enter a river anyway.” A third officer testified that she thought about entering the river, but Hermann had totally submerged and could not be seen. A bystander reported that he approached the officers, explained that he had water rescue experience and offered to attempt a rescue. He reported that officers threatened to arrest him if he did not get back. By the time rescue and EMS arrived 15-20 minutes later, Hermann had drowned.
In examining the facts of this case, the court began by summarizing the law with regard to law enforcement’s duty to protect individuals from harm. The court began with an examination of the United States Supreme Court ruling in Deshaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), where the Court pointed out that local governments [police and sheriffs’ departments] are not required to provide protective services under the Constitution. The court held in that case that the police cannot be faulted for failing to protect a person. The court then noted that there are exceptions to Deshaney. First, police have an obligation to protect prisoners who, due to their custody cannot protect themselves. Second, law enforcement has a duty to protect in cases where the officers play a role in creating or enhancing the danger to an individual.
In applying the law to the facts of this case, the court noted that Hermann’s unexpected escape and dash into the Ohio River created the circumstances of his death. The officers played no role in creating this event or enhancing the danger in this unexpected turn of events that was created by Hermann alone. The court concluded that the “officers are not to be faulted for failing to anticipate Hermann’s affirmative act of attempting to escape.”
The court also rejected claims that the officers violated a duty to attempt a rescue once Hermann dove into the water and actually prevented others from rescuing Hermann. The court asserted that there is “no constitutional right to state-provided rescue services. In addition, the court concluded that stopping a bystander from jumping into the water, where the police could not ascertain his level of competence in river rescues was appropriate and did not violate Hermann’s rights. The court noted: “If police officials are not satisfied that would-be rescuers are equipped to make a viable rescue attempt, for instance, it would certainly be permissible to forbid such an attempt. It would not be irrational, similarly, to prohibit private rescue efforts when a meaningful state-sponsored alternative is available.” The court concluded that the involved officers and their agencies had no federal liability for the death of Louis Hermann.