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Bipolar Teen Missing After Jail Release: Should Police Have Done More to Ensure His Safety?

An 18-year-old Orange County teen has been missing for several weeks following his release from a 60-day jail stay.  The teen is bipolar and has a long history of mental illness. He has been in treatment for most of his adolescence. Unfortunately, he allegedly went off of his medication during his jail stay and, upon his release from jail, was simply allowed to leave. His family is now searching desperately for him.  The case raises questions of what responsibility the police had to protect him from injury or harm. An Orange County injury lawyer examines the case.  

The Obligations of Law Enforcement

In the state of California, there is a general rule that people have no duty to come to the aid of others unless specific exceptions exist imposing such a duty. This general rule of no-duty-to-aid even applies to police officers and law enforcement officials. Courts have repeatedly held that police officers have no general obligation to provide assistance or aid to the public and cannot be held liable for injuries that occur due to failure to protect. 

However, there are two specific exceptions that do impose a duty to protect upon law enforcement: the special relationship rule and the state-created danger rule.  These rules ultimately stem from the right to life and liberty found in the 14th Amendment, as an unjustified intrusion into an individual's personal security can be seen as a violation of the right to liberty. 

The special relationship rule says that when the police create a special relationship with private actors, a duty to protect is created as well. For instance, police have an obligation to protect those they have taken into custody, both during transport, at the scene or at the jail. This duty arises, in most cases, only after the individual is in the physical custody of the police.

The state created danger rule or the "danger exception" as it is sometimes called, imposes a duty to protect on law enforcement if the state put the individual in a situation of peril. L.W. v. Grubbs, 974 F.2d 119, 121 (9th Cir.1992) indicated that this exception to the rule of non-liability exists when the state acts affirmatively in placing someone in danger. 

The state created danger rule has been applied in a number of situations. In Wood v. Ostrander, 879 F.2d 583 (9th Cir. 1989), the court determined that the danger creation rule applied when police ejected the passenger of a vehicle and essentially left her by the roadside after arresting the driver and impounding the vehicle.  In L.W. v. Grubbs, the rule applied when a prison nurse was raped after state prison officials selected a violent sex offender to work alone with her in the prison clinic. In Munger v. City of Glasgow Police Dept., 227 F. 3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2000), police forcibly ejected an intoxicated patron from a bar without his coat and the danger exception applied when the man subsequently died of hypothermia after wandering away. 

In these and other situations where the state created danger rule applies, the key question is whether the officers left the individual in a situation more dangerous than the one where they found him. 

Applying the State Created Danger Rule

In the case of the missing Orange County teen, a solid argument could be made that the teen was in more danger of injury or harm when he left jail than when he had been taken into custody, explains an Orange County injury lawyer. If the allegations are true, he had been medically compliant when arrested but he went off of his medication while in prison, thus making him more susceptible to doing something to harm himself or others. In addition, the teen was released on his own from jail before dawn and police did not contact his family or otherwise take steps to assist the teen.

However, there are also limits as to what law enforcement can do when they release a prisoner from custody. Law enforcement officials who believe that arrestees are mentally unstable can detain those arrestees as a possible "5150," which is the police code used to indicate that a person is a danger to himself or others. It is also possible for people to be placed on a "watch commitment" or sent for a 72-hour psychological evaluation to determine their mental fitness.   However, when people are released from prison and have served their time, law enforcement cannot simply detain a person or keep him against his will.  The prisoner is considered an autonomous adult who has served his time and is, essentially, free to go. 

The release of potentially mentally ill patients may, unfortunately, be surprisingly common. Some estimates indicate that at least 16 percent of jail inmates and state prisoners report having a mental condition and/or having spent a night in a mental institution. Within prisons and jails, limited mental health services are available and prisoner with mental illness still must be subject to the same discipline rules and other policies and procedures as patients without mental illness in order to maintain safety and order. Further, involuntary commitment standards are tough in California, making it very difficult for a person to be detained in a mental health facility against his will. 

Police, therefore, likely had limited choices upon the release of the 18-year-old Orange County teen.  However, the fact that their options were limited does not absolve them of the responsibility to protect prisoners in custody with whom they have a special relationship, nor does it absolve them of the responsibility to help those who have been put into danger of injury or harm by police action, explains an Orange County injury lawyer. If releasing the teen prevented an unreasonable danger, then, the California law enforcement system likely can be held responsible for failing in their obligation to protect. 

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