Summary of DeShaney v. Winnebago County
Citation: 489 U.S. 189
Relevant Facts: Following his parents’ divorce, Joshua DeShaney was in the custody of his father Randy DeShaney. While in his father’s custody, Joshua suffered injuries that prompted hospital staff treating him to refer the case for investigation of abuse. That case was eventually dismissed, but under stipulations of further visits from the county Department of Social Services (DSS) for the County of Winnebago, Wisconsin. During those follow-up visits, DSS social workers recorded additional suspicions of child abuse and that Randy DeShaney had failed to meet the stipulations of his agreement with DSS. At additional visits, Mr. DeShaney refused access to DSS staff and told them Joshua was too ill for their visit. About a year after the original incident, Joshua was tragically beaten at the hands of his father, leaving him with severe, permanent brain damage. During the course of his medical treatment, doctors also uncovered evidence of repeated head trauma over a long period. Joshua DeShaney’s mother brought suit against Winnebago County and various officials, claiming that their failure to intervene to prevent violence to Joshua at the hands of his father about whom they knew or should have known violated his right to liberty as guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district Court granted summary judgment in favor of Winnebago County, the Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Issue: Does failure of a state or local government entity to take adequate steps to provide protective services constitute a violation of due process?
Holding: No, failure of a state or local government entity, or its agents, to intervene and provide a protective service does not constitute a due process violation. The Due Process Clause operates as a limit on the authority of the State to act, and is not phrased to create a duty to provide a minimal level of safety or security.
Reasoning: Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, first explained the nature of the guarantees embodied by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Rather than imposing an affirmative duty on the State to act, the Court explained, due process serves as a limitation on the ability of the state to act. State and local governments may not deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process; however, the substance of that basic guarantee is far different from an absolute protection against all infringements on life, liberty, or property at the hands of any actor, including as here a private party. The Court shared outrage at the tragedy in this case, but placed blame on the actions of Joshua’s father rather than the inaction of any state or local agency or official. Next, the Court evaluated the claim that DSS assumed the duty to act by virtue of a “special relationship" giving rise to an affirmative duty. Petitioners contended that, by investigating the case and documenting abuse, DSS assumed a duty to provide reasonable protections. The Court rejected this line of argumentation. Relying on previous cases of “special relationships," the Court concluded that DSS owed Joshua no special duty because he was not in their custody or care. So, while the State may owe a duty of reasonable protective services to incarcerated prisoners or confined mental patients, no such duty attaches to persons generally in the absence of physical custody. Finally, Justice Rehnquist explained that assumption of duties based on actions to protect but failure to adequately do so, such as here, may give rise to state tort liability. However, the potential for tort liability does not convert every such tort into a due process violation. Rather, the Constitutional duties owed are different and evaluated separately, such that the remedy here may well be reformation of state tort law rather than extension of Constitutional protections.
Dissent: Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall and Justice Blackmun, dissented, arguing that the Court started with an improper inquiry and flawed perspective. Rather than decide whether the Constitution protects positive or negative liberties, or whether due process imposes affirmative duties- as the majority did- Justice Brennan argued the Court should refocus attention on what the State chose to do for Joshua and similarly situated citizens. Justice Brennan urged the Court to evaluate state action for compliance with their own voluntarily adopted scheme, as the creation of protective services relived others of a duty to act and failure to engage such services left Joshua subject to the resultant harm.
Justice Blackmun filed a separate, brief dissent, agreeing with Justice Brennan that the action versus inaction distinction was misplaced, and that the State had acted on behalf of Joshua, but failed to protect him. After comparing the case to that of fugitive slaves denied protection, Justice Blackmun concluded with a famous lament on behalf of “Poor Joshua" recounted the tragic facts of his abuse and lamenting the absence of a judicial remedy for the abuse he suffered.
Conclusions: State and local agencies and officials do not owe affirmative duties of protection to citizens under the Due Process Clause. The State only acquires a duty to act on the basis of a special relationship when that state has actual, physical custody of the individual.