DENVER — In a case that could open the door to thousands of lawsuits against local governments across the country, a Colorado woman is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to back her lawsuit in which she says police didn’t do enough to prevent her estranged husband from killing their three daughters.
Jessica Gonzales contends police in the community of Castle Rock ignored her calls for help after Simon Gonzales took the girls, ages 10, 9 and 7, from her yard in June 1999.
Several hours later, Gonzales fired shots through a police-station window. He was killed in the resulting gunfight, and officers found the girls’ bodies in his pickup truck.
Jessica Gonzales said her husband had taken the girls in violation of a restraining order she obtained as part of their divorce case. Two officers — half the town’s on-duty police force at the time — were sent to the Gonzales home to investigate and learned the restraining order gave the father limited child-visitation rights.
“There was absolutely no indication at all that those girls were in harm’s way,” said Tony Lane, who had been police chief for 13 years in the fast-growing town 25 miles south of Denver. “His previous history did not show he was ever violent toward those girls and he was in compliance with the restraining order.”
The tiny police department came under heavy criticism from people who believed officers didn’t do enough to enforce the restraining order.
The $30 million federal lawsuit was dismissed in 2001, but it was reinstated by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said police had a duty to respond to her calls for help.
At issue in the Supreme Court appeal is whether the 14th Amendment obligates police to protect residents from violence when a local government issues a restraining order and promises it will be enforced. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday.
“I don’t lose three children and not do something about it,” Gonzales told “60 Minutes” for a report scheduled to air tonight on CBS. “(The lawsuit) is the only way I know how to make that right. All I can do is give it my best shot to make a change, to make the world a little safer.”
Calls to a phone registered to a Jessica Gonzales in Denver were not answered. Her attorney, Brian Reichel, did not return several calls, though in written arguments he has said police could have prevented the deaths.
The case has drawn attention from numerous groups, including the National League of Cities, National Sheriffs Association and other groups.
Littleton Assistant City Attorney Brad Bailey, who filed a brief opposing the lawsuit, said the decision to reinstate the case marked the first time any court has given the status of a property right to a restraining order.
In Colorado and about 20 other states, law enforcement agencies are required to enforce restraining orders, which are often issued in divorce cases and — in many states — are routinely issued in criminal cases to protect witnesses from a defendant.
“Given the sheer numbers of orders out there, potentially the liability is just staggering,” Bailey said.
Castle Rock officials contend the Supreme Court has never allowed lawsuits against public officials when alleged gross negligence permits a child to be harmed by a parent.
Legal relief for police neglect is often available under state laws. But Colorado bars the negligence claim, leaving Gonzales with nowhere to turn if the high court rules against her.
Lane, the police chief, said he doesn’t know what motivated Gonzales to sue, but said he cannot imagine being in her situation.
“People do have a tendency to look for somebody to blame,” he said. “There’s no bitterness at all on our part. She’s just doing what she thinks is appropriate. She just has a different opinion of the facts of the case.”
The case is Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, 04-278.