Two Maine State Police detectives may be sued for allegedly failing to protect the victims of an Aroostook County man’s July 2015 rampage that spanned two counties, left two men dead and four people injured, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
A three-judge panel found that under Maine law, “officers may be held liable for failing to protect plaintiffs from [a] danger created or enhanced by their [actions].”
It was the first time the appellate court in Boston has ruled on the issue, which aligns the First Circuit with all the other appellate courts in the nation, Judge Sandra Lynch wrote in the 34-page ruling.
Brittany Irish, 26, of Bangor and her mother, Kimberly Irish, 60, of Benedicta, alleged in a complaint filed in September 2017 in federal court in Bangor that Maine State Police detectives Micah Perkins and Jason Fowler violated the Irishes’ civil rights by putting them in danger of violence from Anthony Lord, 40, of Crystal.
The women claimed that Lord’s rampage on July 16 and 17 five years ago was triggered by a voicemail left on his cellphone by a detective who was investigating Brittany Irish’s criminal complaint that Lord had abducted, threatened, and raped her two days earlier. Before the officers checked Lord’s criminal record or made any effort to find Lord in person, Perkins left the voicemail identifying himself as a state police officer and asking Lord to call him back, the appellate court said.
Exactly how the First Circuit’s ruling will affect other law enforcement officers in Maine in the future was unclear, but it was praised by Zachary Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine.
“While a civil rights remedy can never undo the harm caused by the police in this case, it is important that the plaintiffs here are going to have their day in court,” he said. “The trial court found that the police actions were deliberately indifferent to human life and safety to such a degree as to shock the conscience. The Constitution protects against such behavior.”
The Irishes’ attorney, Scott Lynch of Lewiston, said the appellate court’s ruling balances the rights of people who feel police have violated their constitutional rights with the qualified immunity law enforcement officers are granted.
“Police officers in Maine can no longer use qualified immunity as a shield for their misconduct,” he said. “On the other hand, the court did not want well trained and well intentioned officers to be hamstrung by frivolous lawsuits. The standard set is that [to be liable] an officer must take some affirmative action that would enhance the danger to a person or fail to protect a party.”
The ruling also said that officers’ actions must be so deliberate or indifferent that the conduct “shocks the conscience” of the court and society, Lynch said.
When the officers failed to check Lord’s long and violent criminal history before leaving him the voicemail, they took the affirmative steps outlined in the ruling, the lawyer said.
The appellate court’s ruling reversed a February ruling in the detectives’ favor granted by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock. He ruled that a jury could find that the officers violated the Irishes’ due process rights but that the detectives were immune from their lawsuit under Maine law.
Qualified immunity laws shield police officers and other government officials from being held liable for constitutional violations. Many people across the country have called for the elimination of qualified immunity for police in the wake of shootings of Black men and women by white officers. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved in the debate.
On Thursday, Maine State Police spokesperson Katharine England referred questions about the impact of the ruling to Maine Attorney General’s office, which is defending the detectives. Marc Malon, spokesman for that office did not immediately return a request for comment. It is the practice of the attorney general’s office not to comment on pending cases.
The Irishes’ case may now proceed to trial but a date is not expected to be set for several weeks. The women are seeking unspecified damages.
Lord, 40, of Crystal is serving two life sentences after pleading guilty to murdering Kyle Hewitt, 22, of Benedicta and Kevin Tozier, 58, of Lee; shooting and wounding Kimberly Irish, Clayton McCarthy, 60, and Carlton Eddy, 55, all of Benedicta; and assaulting Kary Mayo, 43, of Silver Ridge with a hammer.