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Walter Hughes had a history of making suicidal threats. His wife, Victoria, left the house because she suspected that Walter had been having an affair. When Walter’s daughters came to the house to retrieve Victoria’s belongings, Walter grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot one of the daughters, then himself. The daughters left and reported the incident at the state police barracks.
Police officers were dispatched, but were not advised of the fact that Walter had threatened his daughters. After speaking with Walter, the officers concluded that he was not, in fact, a threat to himself. However, the officers testified that if they had known of Walter’s threat against his daughter they would have arrested Walter for domestic violence and confiscated his gun. That evening the daughters returned to the house and found a suicide note. Walter, however, was missing. Despite intense searches of the area near the house, including a nearby shell pit, Walter was not located.
Months later, human remains were discovered in the shell pit. Police conducted a search and located clothing, personal items and bones. These items were bagged for processing and the scene was cleared after approximately three hours. The next day Walter’s wife and daughters visited the scene and within minutes discovered other remains including a pelvic bone, an arm bone, vertebrae, rib and finger bones and part of a jaw bone. The family was deeply upset by this discovery. Within a few days, the family also discovered a femur and a shell casing in the same general area.
The resulting claim against the police consists of two parts: (1) a wrongful death claim alleging that the police owed a duty of care to Walter by virtue of his threatened suicide; and (2) a claim alleging that the police mishandled Walter’s remains. The police moved for summary judgment, alleging that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The circuit court denied summary judgment.
Whether the trial court correctly denied summary judgment in a case involving police officers who were (1) responding to a known suicide threat, and (2) collecting human remains in the wake of that suicide.
This case was on the Rule 20 docket, suggesting that the Supreme Court was prepared to write a new syllabus on one or more of the issues raised. However, in the end the Court addressed this as a straightforward case of qualified immunity
The Court quoted and applied the general rule of qualified immunity from the syllabus of Bennett v. Coffman, 178 W.Va. 500, 361 S.E.2d 465 (1987):
“Government officials performing discretionary functions are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Regarding the failure to take steps for Mr. Hughes’ protection in light of his suicidal threats, the Court noted:
“We cannot know precisely what the two plaintiffs said to the office assistant [at the police barracks], or how quickly and clearly it was said, and we likewise cannot know precisely what the office assistant said or heard…What we do know is that the office assistant exercised some form of discretion, collated and translated the information that [the plaintiffs] presented, and passed that information to a dispatcher.”
Similarly, the Court stated in a footnote that it could not locate any “constitutional, statutory, or common-law right for a person to be arrested to prevent the person’s potential later suicide.” Accordingly, the conduct of both the office assistant at the barracks and the officers at the scene was discretionary and, therefore, came within the scope of the qualified immunity defense.
Regarding the search for Mr. Hughes’ remains, the Court observed that the officers “halted their search in the overgrown quarry…as darkness fell. Exercising their judgment and discretion, the [officers] decided not to resume the search the next day and decided to apply police resources to other tasks.” Again, the Court found that this exercise of discretion–even if negligently performed or erroneous–was shielded from liability by qualified immunity.
Because the circuit court erred in refusing to grant summary judgment in favor of the police officers, its summary judgment order was reversed.
This case is a reminder of how difficult it can be for a plaintiff to overcome the defense of qualified immunity. The Court emphasized the fact that a plaintiff must make a showing that a specific constitutional, statutory or common law right was violated. Without this showing, the court will defer to the government–finding that its conduct was merely an exercise of discretion and was, therefore, protected under the qualified immunity doctrine.