SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois Supreme Court is deliberating two cases this year concerning law enforcement's total immunity from lawsuits even when officers choose to ignore their sworn duty.
The state high court is reviewing how authorities acted in a Rock Island County car wreck and a Chicago domestic violence situation.
Women died in both cases and the ensuing wrongful death suits were blocked by a state law that gives blanket immunity to local governments.
The Illinois Municipal League suggests that these protections are necessary for cities and counties to provide everyday services.
"When a city sends out a fire truck or an ambulance sometimes people die," said Larry Frang, the league's assistant executive director "What's the easy way to avoid liability? Stop fighting fires, stop using police, stop sending out ambulances? The General Assembly says … 'We don't want the government to give up on needed services.'"
What if law enforcement is contacted but never intervenes?
"I don't think the legislature ever really anticipated that no one would simply come," said Michael W. Rathsack, the plaintiffs' attorney in both lawsuits. "They anticipated that people would do things wrong. They didn't think they would do them that wrong.
A car wreck
On April 5, 2002, Orion resident Doris Hays' car swerved off U.S. 150 into a steep ditch about two miles south of Coal Valley in Rock Island County.
Another driver saw the accident and reported it to the Orion village clerk. The clerk called the Henry County Sheriff's Department, which forwarded the call to Moline-East Moline Dispatch Center because the accident was in Rock Island County.
The dispatcher forwarded the call to the Rock Island County Sheriff's Department. Phone conversations between Moline-East Moline dispatcher Debra Roman and her Rock Island County counterpart Myrtle DeWitte, who was later placed on a 30-day unpaid suspension, reveal that the accident's severity was either downplayed or not communicated.
Roman: "And, it's right at the Rock Island County Line."
DeWitte: "Oh heaven forbid they (the Henry County Sheriff's Department) would handle it."
Roman: "Well, I know."
The crash site went univestigated for three days despite Mary DeSmet, an Illinois City resident, reporting that her 68-year-old sister was missing on April 5.
In an interview last month, DeSmet said she filed the lawsuit "so no other family has to go through what we have gone through and letting the authorities get off for not doing their jobs."
However, the Rock Island County Sheriff's Department lawyer argued in court documents that the agency did provide service.
"Rock Island County investigated what was reported as a vehicle in a ditch on Monday," argued Robert J. Noe in court filings. "It's not accurate to argue no service was provided."
On Monday, authorities found Hays dead.
A 911 call
On May 3, 2002, Ronyale White, a Chicago resident, called 911 because her husband, Louis Drexel, was in the house. She told the 911 dispatcher that Drexel was violating an order of protection and that he had a gun.
Two Chicago Police officers where dispatched but left before investigating the scene. Five minutes later Drexel shot White, who died the next day.
In this case, lawyers for White's estate argued that Illinois' domestic violence laws require police to take reasonable steps to stop further abuse. The City of Chicago countered that it could not be sued because of the blanket immunity extended to local governments voids the duties outlined in the domestic violence laws.
"There is no intent in domestic violence act to oust existing immunities" argued attorney Myriam Zreczny Kasper. "The tort immunity act is a critical act for the taxpayers enacted by the General Assembly to shield the taxpayers from unlimited liability in difficult cases as this one."
Rathsack, who was a lawyer for the White estate, argued in court that legislators, who crafted the domestic violence laws, were concerned that the justice system had failed.
The laws preamble reads: "The legal system has ineffectively dealt with family violence in the past -in practice there is still widespread failure to appropriately protect and assist victims."
An appellate court has agreed with the plaintiff's interpretation of state law.
People opposed to the immunity should seek to change the law through the General Assembly not argue it through the courts, Frang said.
"You don't argue in court that the General Assembly didn't mean what they said," he said,
Rathsack said that legislation would go a long way to addressing potential problems.
"Police and the fire departments need to know what they can do," he said. "And on my side, we need to know if they violated a rule or not. We shouldn't have to go back to court to find out what thier duty is."