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The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Colorado woman who sued her local police department and her town for failing to enforce a restraining order against her husband. The woman had summoned police after her estranged husband took their three daughters. The husband murdered the children before being killed in a shootout with police. In a 7-2 decision, the justices concluded that the woman, Jessica Gonzales, had no legal basis to sue the police department or the city under federal law. Enforcement of a protective order is a matter for states and local law enforcement, the justices ruled. “A well established tradition of police discretion has long co-existed with apparently mandatory arrest statutes,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. But Scalia noted that while the Court believes the 14th Amendment does not allow for civil rights suits against police departments, the decision “does not mean that States are powerless to provide victims with personally enforceable remedies.” The case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, had pitted advocates for domestic violence victims, who worried that failure to enforce protective orders would render them essentially valueless, against local municipalities, which argued that mandatory enforcement would open the departments up to a flood of lawsuits, increased liability, and potential bankruptcy. Gonzales, a resident of Castle Rock, Colo., was in the midst of a divorce when she obtained a protective order against her estranged husband, barring him from having unauthorized contact with her or their three young daughters. The order specifically directed the police to “use every reasonable means to enforce” the restraining order and to arrest anyone who violated it. On the evening of June 22, 1999, Simon Gonzales abducted the children from the front yard of the family’s home. Jessica Gonzales contacted the local police multiple times, urging them to arrest her husband. She showed the officers a copy of the restraining order. The officers did not immediately locate Simon Gonzales. Hours later, Simon Gonzales was killed in a gunbattle with the police. The bodies of the three girls were found in the trunk of his car. Jessica Gonzales sued the police officers and the town of Castle Rock for $30 million, claiming the officers did not use “every reasonable means to enforce” the order and that under the federal Civil Rights Act she had a protected property interest in the enforcement of the protective order. John Eastman, a professor of law at Chapman University School of Law who represented the city of Castle Rock before the Court, says, “You can’t expect the police to drop everything and jump every time there is a phone call.” What the Court did, he says, is reinforce that the police have the same responsibilities to stop domestic violence that they had before. The Court’s decision means that states�not the federal government�need to take the lead in protecting victims of domestic violence, according to Richard Smith, a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of a number of law enforcement associations. “The decision is an open invitation to states to stand up and really take domestic violence seriously,” he says, “and not force victims to rely on the federal Constitution to protect them.” Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, an expert in domestic violence issues, also believes the Court put the ball back in the states’ hands. She says advocates should not be discouraged by the decision, since it is an opportunity for advocates and police to work together to come up with appropriate ways to enforce the orders.
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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