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Beltran-Serrano, et al. v. City of Tacoma

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Beltran-Serrano, et al. v. City of Tacoma is a case pending before the Washington State Supreme Court. On June 29, 2013, Tacoma police officer Michel Volk saw a man, Beltran-Serrano, wandering aimlessly near an intersection known for panhandling. Although she had no suspicion he had committed a crime, she stopped to inform Beltran-Serrano of the panhandling laws. She discovered Beltran-Serrano was digging a hole for no apparent reason. Beltran-Serrano had poor hygiene, appearing homeless. Beltran-Serrano lifted an old bottle out of the hole, took a swig of the liquid, and put the bottle back. When Volk asked if he spoke English, Beltran-Serrano shook his head, indicating he did not. Volk radioed for a Spanish-speaking officer, who immediately drove to their location. Before the Spanish-speaking officer arrived. Volk started interrogating him in English, causing Beltran-Serrano to become scared, and move away from Volk. Volk pursued. In an attempt to stop him, she used her taser. However, Beltran-Serrano was able to brush off the taser tags. Continuing to run, Volk dropped her taser and pulled out her gun, firing four times and severely injuring Beltran-Serrano. Beltran-Serrano was charged with assault in the second degree and obstructing a law enforcement officer. However, the charges were later dismissed. This is a separate case, where Beltran-Serrano sued the City. The question of the case is:

Whether a municipality acting through its law enforcement officers owes members of the public a common law duty of care when deploying potentially deadly force against an individual member of the public, and if so, whether the public duty doctrine , or an exception to the doctrine applies.

As for the first question, of duty of care, various precedents state that it is to be respected when deploying deadly force. Tennessee v. Garner (1985) states that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of deadly force unless it is necessary to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon and the officer has probable cause to believe the felon is a significant threat of violence to the officer or the community. Duty of care can be inferred from this decision. When the suspect is such a threat, the standard for duty of care is significantly lowered, as the protection of the public is more heavily weighted than the well-being of one person. However, typically, a police officer must restrain himself from deploying such force, as the standard of duty of care is higher. This is due to the basis of the duty of care – the reasonable person. The reasonable person is a hypothetical person that acts carefully and always chooses the safer course. Therefore, precedent can be inferred to make duty of care a requirement in deployment of deadly force.

However, an incorrect deployment cannot result in any penalty under the public duty doctrine, as no criteria is met for an exemption. In general, government entities cannot be held liable for harm to an individual, as the doctrine states ‘a duty to all is a duty to none’. Unless the entity guarantees a certain person protection or recourse, the entity cannot be held liable for a failure, even one resulting in death.

As applicable to Beltran-Serrano’s case, the Court should rule in favor of Beltran-Serrano but grant him no compensation. Volk clearly violated the duty of care, as well as the ruling set in Garner. Therefore, Beltran-Serrano must win the case, as he is legally in the right while Tacoma is in the wrong. However, Beltran-Serrano, under the public duty doctrine, cannot receive compensation, even for his severe injuries, as the doctrine does not differ regardless of injury level.



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