Warren v. District of Columbia
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Warren v. District of Columbia (444 A.2d. 1, D.C. Ct. of Ap. 1981) is an oft-quoted District of Columbia Court of Appeals case that held that the police did not owe a specific duty to provide police services to the plaintiffs based on the public duty doctrine.
In two separate cases, Carolyn Warren, Miriam Douglas, Joan Taliaferro, and Wilfred Nichol sued the District of Columbia and individual members of the Metropolitan Police Department for negligent failure to provide adequate police services. The trial judges held that the police were under no specific legal duty to provide protection to the individual plaintiffs and dismissed the complaints. In a 2-1 decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals determined that Warren, Taliaferro, and Nichol were owed a special duty of care by the police department and reversed the trial court rulings. In an unanimous decision, the court also held that Douglas failed to fit within the class of persons to whom a special duty was owed and affirmed the trial court's dismissal of her complaint. The case was reheard by an en banc panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Warren, Taliaferro, and Douglas
In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 16, 1975, Carolyn Warren and Joan Taliaferro, who shared a room on the third floor of their rooming house at 1112 Lamont Street Northwest in the District of Columbia, and Miriam Douglas, who shared a room on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter, were asleep. The women were awakened by the sound of the back door being broken down by two men later identified as Marvin Kent and James Morse. The men entered Douglas' second floor room, where Kent forced Douglas to perform oral sex on him and Morse raped her.
Warren and Taliaferro heard Douglas' screams from the floor below. Warren telephoned the police, told the officer on duty that the house was being burglarized, and requested immediate assistance. The department employee told her to remain quiet and assured her that police assistance would be dispatched promptly.
Warren's call was received at Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters at 0623 hours, and was recorded as a burglary-in-progress. At 0626, a call was dispatched to officers on the street as a "Code 2" assignment, although calls of a crime in progress should be given priority and designated as "Code 3." Four police cruisers responded to the broadcast; three to the Lamont Street address and one to another address to investigate a possible suspect.
Meanwhile, Warren and Taliaferro crawled from their window onto an adjoining roof and waited for the police to arrive. While there, they observed one policeman drive through the alley behind their house and proceed to the front of the residence without stopping, leaning out the window, or getting out of the car to check the back entrance of the house. A second officer apparently knocked on the door in front of the residence, but left when he received no answer. The three officers departed the scene at 0633, five minutes after they arrived.
Warren and Taliaferro crawled back inside their room. They again heard Douglas' continuing screams; again called the police; told the officer that the intruders had entered the home, and requested immediate assistance. Once again, a police officer assured them that help was on the way. This second call was received at 0642 and recorded merely as "investigate the trouble;" it was never dispatched to any police officers.
Believing the police might be in the house, Warren and Taliaferro called down to Douglas, thereby alerting Kent to their presence. At knife point, Kent and Morse then forced all three women to accompany them to Kent's apartment. For the next fourteen hours the captive women were raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon one another, and made to submit to the sexual demands of Kent and Morse.
Warren, Taliaferro, and Douglas brought the following claims of negligence against the District of Columbia and the Metropolitan Police Department: (1) the dispatcher's failure to forward the 6:23 a. m. call with the proper degree of urgency; (2) the responding officers' failure to follow standard police investigative procedures, specifically their failure to check the rear entrance and position themselves properly near the doors and windows to ascertain whether there was any activity inside; and (3) the dispatcher's failure to dispatch the 6:42 a. m. call.
On April 30, 1978, at approximately 11:30 p. m., appellant Nichol stopped his car for a red light at the intersection of Missouri Avenue and Sixteenth Street, N.W. Unknown occupants in a vehicle directly behind appellant struck his car in the rear several times, and then proceeded to beat appellant about the face and head breaking his jaw.
A Metropolitan Police Department officer arrived at the scene. In response to the officer's direction, appellant's companion ceased any further efforts to obtain identification information of the assailants. When the officer then failed to get the information, leaving Nichol unable to institute legal action against his assailants, Nichol brought a negligence action against the officer, the Metropolitan Police Department and the District of Columbia.
In a 4-3 decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial courts' dismissal of the complaints against the District of Columbia and individual members of the Metropolitan Police Department based on the public duty doctrine. The Court explained that "[t]he duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists." The Court adopted the trial court's determination that no special relationship existed between the police and appellants, and therefore no specific legal duty existed between the police and the appellants.
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