Tenth Circuit exonerates a 911 operator whose advice got a man killed

Estate of Reat v. Rodriguez, No. 15-1001 (10th Cir. Mar. 31, 2016).

A street scene in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, not far from where Jimma Pal Reat was killed. (Credit: flickr / Paul Swansen.)

A street scene in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, not far from where Jimma Pal Reat was killed. (Credit: flickr / Paul Swansen.)

Jimma Pal Reat and a couple of family members were driving through Denver when they were attacked by armed assailants from another car. Reat drove away—across the Denver city line—and called 911. The operator instructed a reluctant Reat to return to Denver, claiming that police could not help him unless he returned. So Reat returned, and when he did, the same men who had attacked him earlier shot him dead. 

Reat’s estate has now sued the 911 operator, citing the state-created-danger doctrine. Under that doctrine, a government officer may be held liable for recklessly creating a known danger for a particular person. Here, however, the Tenth Circuit holds that the 911 operator can’t be held liable because he didn’t violate clearly established law. The state-created-danger doctrine is usually applied when a state actor creates a danger by limiting a citizen’s liberty to act. Here, the Tenth Circuit says that the operator didn’t actually deprive Reat and his passengers of their ability to leave Denver. He just provided totally incompetent advice. Because Reat had the theoretical power to disregard that advice, the operator can’t be held liable.