Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, July 19, 2023


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Expansion of ‘State-Created Danger’ Doctrine Decried by Four Ninth Circuit Judges


By a MetNews Staff Writer


 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick J. Bumatay, joined by three colleagues, yesterday dissented from an order denying an en banc rehearing in a case in which a three-judge panel, in a 2-1 decision, reinstated a civil rights action against a police officer and a social worker who arranged for a woman with mental problems to be moved from a shelter to a motel room where she killed her 10-month-old twins by drowning.

Authoring the March 14 majority opinion was Judge Carlos T. Bea. Judge Morgan Christen joined in it, and Judge Sandra S. Ikuta partially dissented.

Bea’s opinion declares that the father of the infants, Jose Murguia, adequately stated a claim against the officer and the social worker under the “state-created danger” doctrine, an exception to the general rule that a state has no responsibility for harms inflicted by one private citizen on another.

Joining with Bumatay in protesting the circuit’s decision not to grant en banc review were Ikuta, Consuelo M. Callahan, and Ryan D. Nelson.

Doctrine Expanded

Bumatay complained that the decision in the case “aggrandizes the ‘state-created danger’ doctrine and expands its scope.”

The events leading to the killings occurred on Dec. 5, 2018. Murguia telephoned 911 to report that his ex-wife, Heather Langdon, with whom he weas living, was experiencing mental health problems and needed emergency attention; Couty of Tulare sheriffs’ deputies allowed Langdon to take the twins to a church; City of Visalia police then transported Langdon and the infants to a shelter; Tulare Police Department Sgt. Garcia, based on information from social worker Roxanna Torres, drove Langdon to the motel and left her there with the twins.

(Garcia’s first name was not used in the litigation.)

According to the first amended complaint, “Garcia and Torres each provided the other with incorrect information about Langdon and her situation.” In particular, it is alleged that Garcia falsely stated that Langdon had no history of child abuse.

Bea’s Opinion

Bea, in concluding that District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd of the Eastern District of California erred in doismissing the action against Garcia and Torres without leave to amend for failing to state a claim, said:

“…Garcia was aware that Langdon was undergoing a mental health crisis but was not aware that Langdon had a history of violent behavior. Given the extreme vulnerability of the ten-month-old twins, the complaint adequately alleges Garcia was aware that Langdon posed an obvious risk of physical harm to the twins based on her worrisome behavior.”

Bea went on to say:

“We similarly conclude that Plaintiffs adequately alleged a state-created danger claim against… Social Worker Torres. Plaintiffs alleged that Torres lied to Garcia about Langdon’s circumstances and history of abuse.”

 Ikuta said in her March 14 that “mere negligence or mistakes on the part of the state actor does not give rise to a constitutional claim.”

She wrote:

“Contrary to Supreme Court precedent (and our own), the majority finds a substantive due process violation despite the absence of any abuse of power entrusted to the state. Instead, the majority holds that plaintiffs can state a claim for a violation of their due process rights based solely on negligence and mistake, exactly what the Supreme Court has told us not to do.”

Ikuta inststed that the majority’s opinion is “out of step even with our broad state-created danger doctrine.”

Bumatay’s Dissent

Bumatay said, dissenting from the order denying en banc rtview:

“Now, commonplace actions—like providing a ride, booking a motel room, or telling a lie—when done by a State actor, could become due process violations if the actions eventually lead to injuries caused by third parties. While Jose Murguia has suffered profound tragedy and deserves redress, the Constitution doesn’t provide the remedy.”

He commented:

“[W]e should have recognized that the Due Process Clause requires a ‘deprivation of liberty’ because it was intended to prevent abuses of coercive state authority—not torts that happen to be committed by State actors….So we should have confined the ‘state-created danger’ doctrine to only encompass affirmative acts by a State actor that constitute the use of the government’s coercive power to restrain the libeity of another. If those acts place a plaintiff in harm’s way. then we may rightfully have a constitutional violation. But without a restraint of liberty, we remain in the realm of ordinary torts. And here, we let due process claims continue against several State actors without any allegation that they exercised the coercive power of the State. We should have affirmed the dismissal of Murguia’s due process claims.

“It’s long past due that we revisit the state-created danger doctrine. This case presented us with a prime opportunity to reconcile our state-created danger jurisprudence with Supreme Court precedent and our Constitution. Regrettably, our court has passed it up.”

Langdon was tried for murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity.


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