Dec 072015
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

Whenever anybody engages me on the issue of self-defense, my mind always wanders to the case of Warren v. District of Columbia.

That case began on the morning of March 16, 1975, when two men broke down the back door of a rooming house on Lamont Street in Washington, D.C. The intruders soon encountered Miriam Douglas, a woman who lived on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter.

The men then seized Douglas, who was forced to perform oral sex on one of the men while the other raped her.

On the third floor above, two roommates — Carolyn Warren and Joan Taliaferro – heard screams coming from below. Warren called the police to request immediate assistance. The dispatcher told Warren that help was on the way.

Three squad cars went to the rooming house. At least one simply drove by without stopping. Another knocked on the door and left after receiving no answer. Within five minutes, all the responding officers had left the scene without performing any meaningful investigation.

Warren and Taliaferro continued to hear screams from downstairs and called the police again. This time they specifically reported that intruders were present in the building and once again requested immediate assistance. This time, no officers were dispatched.

Time passed. Believing police had responded, Warren and Taliaferro called out to Douglas. This alerted the intruders to their presence. The men held all three women at knifepoint, then beat and raped them repeatedly over the course of 14 hours. The victims were also forced to perform sexual acts on one another for the amusement of their captors.

In the aftermath, all three women sued the District of Columbia and the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as the individual officers who responded to the initial call. Their complaint was dismissed, and the ruling of the trial court was upheld on appeal.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal relied on the “public duty doctrine,” which is “the well-established rule that official police personnel and the government employing them are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection.” The only exception to the rule are cases where there is direct contact between the officer and the victim, and specific assurances of protection are made to which the victim relies to their detriment.

Under this doctrine, the Court reasoned, none of the three women had a legitimate claim against the officers or the department. They were basically complaining of general police incompetence.

So why does my mind always turn to this terrible case when discussing self-defense? It’s because Warren stands for the proposition that the police have virtually no legally-enforceable obligation to protect you. Police are supposed to work hard to protect citizens and the majority certainly do, but in the event they drop the ball entirely, there’s little recourse.

This is especially relevant here in New Orleans, where we have a police department with obscenely sluggish response times that lacks a wellspring of public trust. We also are in the midst of a high-profile spate of violent crime.

Under these circumstances, we should jealously guard our well-established right to effectively defend ourselves. It isn’t enough to say that people should just “call 911” in response to a violent attack or a suspected intruder, because the police aren’t legally responsible for protecting you. They have a generally obligation to the public at large, but nothing that creates actual liability. Ultimately, we’re all on our own.

For the same reason, we should also be wary of claims that we ought to emulate European perspectives on self-defense. First off, Europe is no stranger to violent crime. Violent victimization rates in the United Kingdom, for example, are even higher than they are in the US.

Secondly, citizens overseas often have little right to defend themselves. One recalls the well-publicized conviction of British farmer Tony Martin who, in 1999, shot two males who were burglarizing his home. Unlike in the US, in subjects of the British Crown are effectively expected to submit to home invasions. One of the men Martin shot was actually given public assistance to sue Martin in court, although his case failed after evidence emerged that tended to indicate he was exaggerating his residual injuries.

We could have a system, like in the UK, where the same government that can’t be sued for failing to protect you will actually pay the legal fees of your “victim” if you attempt to defend yourself and your home. That madness does exist.

However, none of this is to say that the police are irrelevant. There shouldn’t be any respite from the steady drumbeat of demands for reform in the NOPD. We should expect better protection. However, when civil authorities fail and you’re left to your own devices to defend yourself against a specific threat, it’s good to know that ultimately the law will back you up. Self-defense laws should remain both broad and deferential.

After all, at the end of the day, nobody has a legal obligation to protect you. The only person you can truly rely on is yourself.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  12 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Self-defense may be your only defense”

  1. I think self-defense is practiced regularly in New Orleans. Logically speaking, half of the shooters at Bunny Friend were shooting in self defense, although which half is disputed. I think a strong argument can be made for the possession of weapons to defend the home, but not so much for street and restaurant defense.

    • Deux,

      I’m not clear why you don’t think a strong argument can be made for the possession of weapons to defend oneself anywhere, whether it be out in public or in the home. The question is whether a person has been attacked without provocation, i.e., whether self-defense is lawful. If self-defense is lawful, then surely an innocent citizen should be able to possess a weapon that actually enables them to defend themselves.

      • The heart of the problem is that the average citizen is too incompetent to use a weapon in some confrontation. If you are confident in your abilities, go for it. I’ve had too many people who can barely tie their shoes show me their ankle holsters.

        • Deux,

          I disagree. The overwhelming majority of gun encounters occur at close range. Still, I would agree that people ought to train more and have a decent knowledge of their firearm; muscle memory particularly is very important.

  2. Agree with you on all of this. What concerns me is that self defense isn’t always protected by the law, and more and more people are afraid to defend themselves because they fear they might be misjudging or overreacting and should “just wait for the police” so they don’t get into trouble too. The Merritt Landry/Marshall Coulter case was a bigger turning point in local self-defense than most realize. Yes, he was eventually cleared, but his family was dragged through hell and back. This now makes more people hesitate when someone’s breaking into their house or business – which is obviously a blurrier line than the usual direct armed robberies that are so common here, or that horrible rape story you described.

    • Pistolette,

      The Merritt Landry case has been on my mind a great deal with this. Landry never should have gone through all of that to begin with. There was never any meaningful chance of getting a conviction. Personally, I think Louisiana’s Castle Doctrine law needs to be extended to a fenced and locked curtilage, such that a perp that hops a locked fence surrounding a home (as Coulter did) would allow a homeowner to invoke the doctrine.

  3. Using your wits (if you have any) is always the best defense. I’ve never had to threaten anyone with a weapon of any kind and emerged unscathed from dozens of potentially deadly interactions, both here in NOLA and around the world. Guns are a tool for the mentally slow and intellectually difficent. Most violent criminals are easily out-smarted. In the case you reference, the two women could have done more to get the attention of the police. And police, who are funded by public tax dollars and must swear an oath of duty, should be held liable for inaction.

    • LGD Resident,

      I’m glad you’ve never had to use a weapon, but to act as though guns are a tool of stupid people is just absurd. There’s a reason why police and military personnel use firearms; they’re the most effective weapons for personal defense available, and you can’t just talk your way out of any encounter, no matter how slick or self-assured you are. Platitudes about guns being crude weapons strike as as more pretentious than meaningful.

      As I wrote in a previous column, criminals are indeed generally stupid, but that’s a double-edged sword. They often thwart themselves, but at the same time it makes them even more unpredictable. A criminal who has a gun directed towards your chest at close range and decides to suddenly fire because you don’t have enough money or he simply hears a noise isn’t going to be “outsmarted.” He’s going to leave you bleeding in the street for no reason at all.

      But where I think you’re the most off-base is when you claim that the women in the Warren case could have “done more to get the attention of police.” That’s offensive, it’s victim-blaming, and it’s factually-incorrect. These women called the police not once, but twice, and actually crawled out of their window and onto the roof to try and catch the attention of the officers. The idea that they didn’t act appropriately is disgusting. They did exactly what they were supposed to do that situation, and the system let them down.

      Police should be punished for doing a bad job, but the system has proven itself to be poor at doing that. And it will never open itself up to meaningful civil liability. That leaves us with self-defense, a system that allows us the means to defend ourselves and doesn’t armchair quarterback our decisions after the fact.

    • I am glad to know that I am intellectually “difficent” for bearing arms. Batman, make sure you stand in front of a security camera when you try to outsmart a twelve gauge.

  4. Thank you Owen! If there were armed citizens there last week at the San Bernadino holiday party, there would have been fewer casualties. A shame – but it would be impossible for our police defend us as fast as we can ourselves! – Visit the Pontchartrain Center on the 19th for options!

    • There was an armed citizen at the holiday party.

      • But you said you could talk your way out of that terrorist attack Deux so let’s send you to meet with ISIS right now and let you work your magic…

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.