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Police not responsible for woman's murder

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a woman's lawsuit against Vanderburgh County officials following the death of her daughter because there isn't a federal constitutional right to be protected by the government against private violence when the government isn't complicit.

In Christine Sandage, et al. v. Board of Commissioners of Vanderburgh County, et al., No. 08-1540, Christine Sandage sued county officials after her daughter and two other people were murdered by Travis Moore, who was on work release at the time. Moore then killed himself. Moore had been serving a four-year sentence for robbery and was in the custody of the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Department.

Sandage's daughter, Sheena Sandage-Shofner, had complained twice to the sheriff's department that Moore was harassing her. The suit claims the department's failure to revoke Moore's work-release privileges and put him back in prison deprived the victims' of their lives without due process of the law.

The federal appellate court affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the suit because there isn't a federal constitutional right for people to be protected by the government from private violence in which the government isn't associated with or participating in the violence. The 7th Circuit cited several cases to support its ruling, including Bowers v. DeVito, 686 F.2d 616, 618 (7th Cir. 1982), and DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).

To have an enforceable federal constitutional right to provide a service such as protection against violence would be impractical and the federal courts would have to decide how much money must be appropriated for police, prosecutions, and prisons; minimum length of state prison sentences; when prisoners should be allowed to be on work release; and other issues, wrote Judge Richard Posner.

The plaintiffs' cite Monfils v. Taylor, 165 F.3d 511 (7th Cir. 1998), in which Monfils had tipped off the police to a thief at his job but begged the police not to release the recorded telephone call or else the thief would recognize his voice. The police agreed to not release the tape, but one officer gave a copy to the thief after he requested it; the thief then killed Monfils. The officer didn't know there had been an agreement not to release the tape. The 7th Circuit in that case upheld a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff because Monfils would have been safer before the police released the tape, wrote Judge Posner.

"In this case, in contrast, the danger was created by Moore, and by Moore alone; the defendants merely failed to take any steps to reduce the danger," he wrote. "They failed in their moral duty to protect members of the public from private violence, while the police in Monfils took a step - releasing the tape - that either created or greatly increased a danger of private violence."

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