Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales
545 U.S. 748 (2005)

Facts:

  • Jessica Gonzales obtained a restraining order against her husband in May of 1999. The back of the form included a “NOTICE TO LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS,” which read in part:
    • “YOU SHALL USE EVERY REASONABLE MEANS TO ENFORCE THIS RESTRAINING ORDER. YOU SHALL ARREST, OR, IF AN ARREST WOULD BE IMPRACTICAL UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, SEEK A WARRANT FOR THE ARREST OF THE RESTRAINED PERSON WHEN YOU HAVE INFORMATION AMOUNTING TO PROBABLE CAUSE THAT THE RESTRAINED PERSON HAS VIOLATED OR ATTEMPTED TO VIOLATE ANY PROVISION OF THIS ORDER…”
  • Around 5:30 pm on June 22, 1999, the husband took their three daughters while they were playing outside of the family home. The timeline then proceeded as follows:
    • Gonzales notified the police around 7:30 to enforce the restraining order, but was told nothing could be done, and to call back at 10 pm.
    • She called again at 8:30 to inform the police that she spoke to her husband and he was at an amusement park with the kids. The police again refused to do anything and told her to wait until 10.
    • When she called at 10, she was told to now wait until midnight.
    • At 3:20 am, the husband arrived at the police station and opened fire with an automatic handgun. He was shot and killed.
    • Inside his truck the police found the bodies of the three daughters, whom he had already murdered.
  • Gonzales later sued the town of Castle Rock, Colorado, arguing that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when its police officers, acting pursuant to official policy or custom, failed to respond properly to her repeated reports that her estranged husband was violating the terms of a restraining order.

History:

  • The District Court granted the defendants motion to dismiss.
  • The Court of Appeals reversed.
    • Colorado law created an entitlement to enforcement of the restraining order because the court-issued restraining order specifically dictated that its terms must be enforced and a state statute commanded enforcement of the order when certain objective conditions were met.

Issue:
Whether an individual who has obtained a state-law restraining order has a constitutionally protected property interest in having the police enforce the restraining order when they have probable cause to believe it has been violated.

Holding:
No. Case reversed.

Reasoning:

  • “To have a property interest in a benefit, a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire and more than a unilateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it. Such entitlements are, of course, not created by the Constitution. Rather, they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law.”
    • A benefit is not a protected entitlement if government officials may grant or deny it in their discretion.
  • Here, the court held that there wasn’t a property interest because Colorado law didn’t make enforcement of restraining orders mandatory.
    • Despite the fact that the word “shall” was used more than once in the restraining order, the court noted that arrest statutes are never interpreted literally. Basically, police always have discretion when it comes to arresting people.

Dissent:

  • If Gonzales had contracted with a private security firm for protection, no one would question that there is a property interest there. Here, Colorado undertook a similar obligation.
  • Generally speaking, mandatory arrest statutes have traditionally been “mandatory” in name only. However, that’s not the case in domestic violence cases:
    • Given the specific purpose of these statutes, there can be no doubt that the Colorado Legislature used the term “shall” advisedly in its domestic restraining order statute. While “shall” is probably best read to mean “may” in other Colorado statutes that seemingly mandate enforcement…it is clear that the elimination of police discretion was integral to Colorado and its fellow States’ solution to the problem of underenforcement in domestic violence cases.”