Vanderbilt Law Review

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On October 20, 1980, as Barbara Piotrowski left a donut shop, a man hired by her ex-boyfriend to kill her shot her four times in the chest. Within twenty-four hours, the Houston Police Department ("HPD") arrested the gunman and his driver and obtained heir confessions. Piotrowski's millionaire ex-boyfriend moved to England and was never arrested nor brought to trial.

Fifteen years later, Piotrowski sued the City of Houston under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for depriving her of her constitutional right to life and liberty and equal protection. She based her lawsuit primarily on information that a month before the shooting, an HPD officer received a tip from a man who claimed he was offered money to kill Piotrowski, chop up her body, and dump it in the Gulf of Mexico. Exactly what HPD did with the tip is unclear. What they did not do was explicitly warn Piotrowski or furnish her with police protection.' Piotrowski further claimed that HPD colluded with her ex-boyfriend both before and after the shooting by harassing her and protecting him." Specifically, she alleged that two or three HPD officers worked for her ex-boyfriend on their off-duty hours, helping him remove from her apartment all its contents, ransacking her house on another occasion, and possibly providing the gunman with a copy of her mug shot.' HPD pointed out that Piotrowski's allegations relied solely upon the conduct of a few isolated officers who moonlighted as security guards for her ex-boyfriend's friend. Nevertheless, after a jury verdict in Piotrowski's favor, a federal judge ordered the City to pay her $18.1 million..

In one respect, the decision against the City of Houston seems fair. If the police department affirmatively aided in the tragedy that befell Ms. Piotrowski, then it certainly violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides tort-like remedies for persons deprived of their constitutional rights "under color of state law." On the other hand, if the police department was simply negligent because it failed to follow the requisite procedures regarding the tip, then the department is protected by sovereign immunity. When stated this way, distinguishing between the two possibilities may seem rather easy. Nonetheless, the situation in Piotrowski illustrates a growing trend in federal courts of finding state officials and municipalities liable for violating 42 U.S.C. § 1983 under a novel theory called "state-created danger."