The state Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the Delaware Department of Public Safety was responsible for the actions of a former state trooper who forced a woman to perform oral sex during a shoplifting arrest, in a 3-2 decision that expands the state’s exposure to liability for sexual misconduct by police officers.
The 73-page majority opinion by Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. relaxed the requirement that wrongful acts committed in the course of an arrest must be motivated by officers’ desire to serve their employer, and opened a new pathway for plaintiffs to bring civil suits against the state.
Instead, Strine said, an officer need only be aided by his relation to a state agency in carrying out the abuses—a finding that highlights both the power invested in police officers and the state’s obligation to answer for it.
“Here we hold that, as a matter of law, if a police officer makes a valid arrest and then uses that leverage to obtain sex from his arrestee, his misconduct need not fall within the scope of his employment” to trigger the state’s liability, Strine wrote.
“In so finding, we take into account the unique, coercive authority entrusted in our police under Delaware law, and the reality that when an arrestee is under an officer’s authority, she cannot resist that authority without committing a crime.”
He was joined in the majority by Justices Collins J. Seitz Jr. and Gary F. Traynor.
The decision vacated a Superior Court jury verdict that found the Department of Public Safety was not responsible for abuses Dawn Worthy had suffered at the hands of state Trooper Joshua Giddings during a shoplifting arrest at the Christiana Mall in 2009.
According to court documents, Giddings told Worthy she could avoid spending the weekend in jail in exchange for oral sex. Giddings had denied the allegations, but DNA evidence later confirmed that the act had occurred, the opinion said.
Giddings committed suicide after being charged with sexual extortion, receiving a bribe and official misconduct. Worthy died in 2015.
Edmund Daniel Lyons Jr. represented her estate in the civil action, which was filed back in 2010. Lyons did not return a call seeking comment on the case. The Delaware Department of Justice, which argued for the state, said through a spokeswoman that it had “no comment” on the ruling.
Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, judgment will be entered in favor of the plaintiff, and the case will be remanded for a trial on damages.
The high court admitted to errors in its handling of the case, which had previously reached the justices twice on appeal. Strine said that the Supreme Court in 2013 adopted a mistaken interpretation of the Restatement of Agency that required an officer’s sexual misconduct to be motivated in part by a desire to serve his employer, a decision which sent the issue of Giddings’ motivation to a jury and has “vexed the Superior Court ever since.”
“In this decision, we admit that we erred in leaving this issue of law to the jury, and leaving the Superior Court in the impossible position of crafting sensible jury instructions to implement a mandate that was not well-thought-out,” Strine wrote.
Justices Karen L. Valihura and James T. Vaughn Jr., in separate dissenting opinions, said they would have upheld the result.
Valihura cautioned that the majority had gone too far in adopting a new test for employer liability that would break from Delaware’s tradition of limiting recovery rights against the state. The issue, she said, should have been left for the legislature to decide.
“But, instead of allowing citizens (i.e., taxpayers) and their representatives in the General Assembly to weigh in after debate—and instead of respecting the General Assembly’s policymaking function—the majority’s holding effects a change in the law based entirely on its view of what the “proper” public policy should be and who should bear the risks (and costs) of wrongful conduct by a law enforcement officer,” she wrote in a 27-page dissent.
The case was captioned Stevenson v. Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.