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State Not Liable for Escaped Juvenile Detainee’s Murder of Store Owner

The federal district court of the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to the defendants in a lawsuit seeking damages resulting from a store owner’s murder by an escaped juvenile detainee.

The action was brought by the wife and estate of Kenneth Barnes, Jr., who was shot and killed in his store on September 24, 2001, by James Dewon Hill, an escapee from the District of Columbia’s (the District) Youth Service Administration (YSA) group home. It was the fourth time Hill escaped from a group home in a two month period.

The estate brought claims for deprivation of Barnes’ constitutional right in life and property by “neglecting to properly supervise a convicted criminal known to flee from group homes.” The complaint also charged a survival claim for wrongful death, for the defendant’s negligent hiring, training, and infliction of emotional distress. It sought damages form the District and YSA’s administrator, Gayle Turner.

To support the property interest claim, the consent decree in Jerry M. v. District of Columbia, 571 A.2d 178 (D.C. 1990) was identified as the source of entitlement, arguing that by entering into that decree the defendants affirmatively assumed responsibility to house and care for juveniles in group homes. As such, they become liable “for the supervision of the juveniles residing in group homes and absconding there from.”

The court held there was no constitutionally protected property interest, for the consent decree “does not impose on the District a duty either to prevent abscondense from juvenile group homes or to arrest any individual who may escape.”

As to the liberty interest claim, the court found the theory of State Endangerment applies. The two-part analysis for that theory, “raises the following questions: (1) has there been an affirmative act by Defendants to create or increase the danger that resulted in harm to Plaintiffs, and, if so, (2) does that act shock the conscience?” An affirmative state act that shocks the conscience would involve “deliberate decisions of government officials to deprive a person of life, liberty or property.”

The court held the defendants’ action, “which are in effect, inaction,” of failing to prevent Hill’s escape and to apprehend him is not “so egregious, so outrageous, that I may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.”

Finally, the court held, there was no special duty under the consent decree as required by public duty doctrine, so the negligence claims also failed. The court entered summary judgment for the defendants on June 6, 2007.

An item of interest in this case is that during discovery, the District was ordered to pay Plaintiff’s law firm, Cohen and Cohen, $2,700 as sanction and cost related to a motion to compel discovery. See: Barnes v. District of Columbia, USDC, D. Columbia, Case No.: 03-2547.

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Related legal case

Barnes v. District of Columbia