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Slain wife’s estate takes suit against Baltimore police to high court

The estate of a pregnant woman stabbed to death by her husband in front of a Baltimore courthouse is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn a ruling that police officers cannot be sued under federal civil rights law for their alleged failure to execute an arrest warrant in a timely fashion for the man who later killed her.

In papers filed with the justices, Veronica Williams’ estate is challenging the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Baltimore officers Daniel Lioi and Melvin Russell cannot be sued because insufficient evidence was presented before trial to indicate their inaction regarding the misdemeanor assault warrant created or increased the risk that Cleaven L. Williams Jr. would kill his wife.

The 4th Circuit cited the “state-created danger” doctrine, which shields government agents from liability unless their actions created or increased the risk of harm caused by outside parties. No evidence was presented that the officers “affirmatively acted and thereby increased the danger to Mrs. Williams,” the 4th Circuit ruled in July.

Cary J. Hansel, the estate’s attorney, stated in his request for Supreme Court review that the officers essentially acted through their inaction.

“No police officer should be allowed to release a violent offender from a locked and secured portion of the police station without arresting him on two open assault warrants, agree to allow him to illicitly remain free for several days, provide letters on department letterhead to ensure he remains free, stand aside as he murders his wife, and escape all accountability because the officers did not hold the knife,” Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore, wrote in reprising the estate’s allegations. “No citizen should live in fear of arbitrary state action creating third-party threats to their lives. No families should be left with no recourse, no accountability, and no remedy when their loved ones are killed as a result of arbitrary state action.”

In its lawsuit, the estate claims Lioi and Russell told Cleaven Williams of the arrest warrant shortly after it was issued on Nov. 9, 2008, and agreed to his request to give him until Nov. 18 to turn himself in so he could raise sufficient funds to post bond.

Williams, a community activist whom the officers allegedly knew, killed his wife on Nov. 17 moments after she received a protective order.

Williams is serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder. The unborn child did not survive.

Lioi and Russell have denied the allegations of having violated Veronica Williams’ rights.

Assistant Baltimore City Solicitor Lisa Walden, who represents the officers, said Tuesday that “the 4th Circuit was correct as to the law and the policy issues. We don’t believe there is any reason for the Supreme Court to take this case up.”

Walden said she intends to waive the officers’ right to respond to the estate’s review request unless the Supreme Court asks for a response.

The high court has not said when it will vote on the estate’s request for review. The case is docketed at the Supreme Court as Carlin Robinson, Personal Representative of the Estate of Veronica Williams v. Daniel A. Lioi et al., No. 19-800.

In its published decision, the 4th Circuit said the delay in serving the warrant and the evidence of the officers’ alleged agreement with Williams did not rise to a violation of Veronica Williams’ federal constitutional rights..

The court characterized the estate’s claim as “an attempt to turn inactions and omissions into affirmative acts and to convert what might be a basis for state tort liability into a federal constitutional violation.”

“When Lioi and Russell allowed Williams to self-surrender, they were exercising the long tradition of police discretion concerning the circumstances of enforcing a misdemeanor search warrant,” Judge G. Steven Agee wrote for the majority. “Exercising this sort of routine police discretion does not give rise to a state-created danger. To hold otherwise would turn the thousands of instances where the police agree to allow a charged individual to self-surrender into a conspiracy to evade arrest.”

Agee was joined in the opinion by Judge Paul V. Niemeyer.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake initially dismissed the case, saying the estate’s complaint did not sufficiently allege a violation of the federal law prohibiting state agents from violating a person’s constitutional rights. The 4th Circuit disagreed then and sent the case back toward trial.

Blake subsequently granted summary judgment for the officers, saying the evidence was insufficient to show they had violated Veronica Williams’ constitutional rights. This time the 4th Circuit agreed by the slimmest of majorities.

In dissent, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory pointed to the 4th Circuit’s original decision that the complaint had sufficiently alleged a constitutional violation, adding that nothing had changed and that the estate’s lawsuit should proceed to trial.

“Although the officers did not know that Williams would kill his wife, they were well aware of the domestic assault charges pending against him and that his wife was afraid of him,” Gregory wrote.

“The officers’ conduct amounts to more than mere negligence, and a jury could find true the complaint’s allegations – allegations we have (initially) said amount to a constitutional violation,” Gregory added. “On the record developed since the previous appeal, a reasonable jury could conclude that Deputy Lioi and Major Russell took affirmative steps to allow Williams to evade arrest and that, as a result, Williams remained free from arrest long enough to stab his wife on a date on which he knew exactly where she would be.”

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Eunice Graves et al. v. Daniel A. Lioi et al., No. 17-1848.