Holding Government Officials Accountable by Applying the State-Created Danger Doctrine to Cases of Suicide

Levine, Zoe | April 3, 2023

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act provides a means for plaintiffs whose civil rights have been violated by government officials to sue for monetary compensation. However, the doctrine of qualified immunity hampers a plaintiff’s chances of success by blocking cases from going to trial and preventing government entities from paying monetary judgments on “insubstantial cases.” State-created danger doctrine is a judicially created exception that can overcome qualified immunity when a government official has caused or contributed to a danger that resulted in harm to that individual. The purpose of this doctrine is to hold officials accountable who were more than negligent. Enforcing this accountability is especially important when those officials operate within the realm of the criminal legal system. Police officers and law enforcement officials are in a position to create more harm than other government officials as they have state- sanctioned authority and potential access to weapons. Moreover, creating accountability through the exception likely would incentivize the officers to act with more care in the future. This Comment examines the state-created danger doctrine applied to cases where a government official’s decisions have resulted in the suicide of an individual. In cases of suicide, this analysis reveals that plaintiffs have failed to succeed even when the actions of government officials have seemingly surpassed negligence. These cases often fail because courts interpret the decisions of government officials to be inactions rather than actions. Courts find that the threat of suicide has always existed, regardless of decisions by officials that might have exacerbated this risk. By not characterizing these decisions as actions, the courts allow qualified immunity to block liability. This Comment proposes an innovative solution: a test that reinterprets the language of DeShaney, the originator of the doctrine, to interpret “actions” to include instances where a government official closed off and later reopened the harm to that individual through their decisions. This Comment will then apply this test to the fact patterns of leading suicide-related cases and those involving law enforcement officials to show how it results in more successes for plaintiffs and more consistent results overall. The Comment concludes that enforcing accountability in this sphere will better protect the public from the officials, operating in the law enforcement or general governmental sphere, who have endangered them by behaving in a way that surpasses negligence.