Are police liable if they fail to warn the public about a serial killer on the loose?

In following the case of the serial killer Gary Hilton, in Florida, there seem to be a huge number of people who believe that they guy has killed dozens, maybe even hundreds of people in the southeast US. And that the authorities knew about it but did not alert the public. And also that the US Forest Service has knowledge of many murders in its jurisdiction but is keeping mum so as not to deter tourism.

If this does prove to be true, do the families of his victims have any legal recourse against the authorities?

You can sue anybody at any time. The only requirement is finding a lawyer willing to take the case. Winning though is another matter.

Imho, you can’t be liable for the future actions of a serial killer, because they often stop for long periods. It’s not guaranteed that they will kill again, and if they do, you can’t guarantee the time frame.

On the other hand, that you know about him at all is probably the gov’ts’ way of informing the public through press releases, so they have done their duty.

“To protect and to serve” is not a contract. IIRC, the courts have ruled that the police have no need to stop crime, only investigate it. Perhaps one of our more legally minded dopers can provide a cite?

What damage have they caused by not informing the public? I assume it is publicly reported information that murders occurred, but not that authorities suspect a serial killer. What different precautions would you take if you thought you lived in a region where 1 person had killed 100 people, versus 100 people killing one person each?

Not pick up hitchhikers ?

Also, it’s rarely confirmed that it is a serial killer until after their capture and confession. Police may suspect it is a serial killer, but they can’t confirm it until much later. It would be irresponsible to tell the public that there is a serial killer until they are certain.

Most states have laws to protect municipalities from conventional tort law standards. You would be hard-pressed to file suit unless you could prove gross negligence and even then the municipality may have protections.

It’s well-established that no citizen has an expectancy right in being protected from a particular crime, and absent such expectancy, there’s no tort claim for the cops’ alleged failure to do so. Put differently, the police have a duty of care to the public not to, say, use excessive force, but no affirmative duty of care to stop a particular crime or criminal or provide a safe environment.

This being GQ, I suppose I should provide some cites. I’m lazy, so the following link goes to a political site, but ignoring their commentary, the case cites are legit and clear.

It’s not a coincidence that this topic comes up on right wing sites. It’s one of the big points gun rights advocates like to bring up. The cops are there to do what they can for the public at large but ain’t no way they’re taking on responsibility for you, as an individual.

Two words: sovereign immunity

Cities, who typically run police departments, are closer to corporations than they are to sovereigns (states or the nation). I don’t think this applies.

In Ontario, Canada, police may be successfully sued for negligence if they fail to warn the public when a serial rapist is on the loose. The courts have found that there is a private law duty of care. Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police, 1998 CanLII 14826 (ON S.C.).

One can assume that this would also apply to warning the pubic of a serial killer.

Thank you Muffin I had a vague recollection of that case but was unable to recall enough detail to find the cite.

This one is closed for now. I might reopen, but I doubt it.

Wolfscratch. Don’t start this monomaniacal screed anywhere else on this Board.

samclem Moderator.

[Moderator Note]

I have removed a long series of posts by Wolfscratch, who hijacked the thread, as well as a few posts replying directly to them. Since Wolfscratch has now been banned, I am re-opening this thread.

General Questions Moderator

You also can’t underestimate the damage of causing a panic. It’s not a simple “telling = safer.” In fact, even if you’ve been informed, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely that it would help you. What, is everybody between ages 20 and 25 going to avoid Broadway and 5th for months on end until it’s solved? On the other hand, telling people a possible serial killer is loose can cause some real hysteria, from people calling the police and panicking over nothing (spreading police resources too thin) to any other number of tiny things that can add up.

As such, saying police MUST inform the populace is a bit of a tight restriction, since the decision to disclose the information may cause more overcaution and panic than is necessary, which could be worse in the long run than a loose serial killer anyway.


I think the question would come down to whether the authorities had a duty to warn the public about such crimes. If, for instance, they had a message that the next victim would be a female, about 30 years old, with long brown hair, on a Monday, in some general location, then in my opinion they would have a duty to warn. Otherwise, what can they warn about? Simply warning that here might be another murder sometime in the near future by someone who might have murdered in the past does nothing at all. Can’t we already assume that?

There’s many episodes in CSI and L&O about this situation. There’s a fine line between giving enough information to keep the public safe and generate leads vs giving too much information so you get copycats. Imho, the risk of having copycats, no matter how small, would be enough justification for me not to release any information. If somebody gets killed because I didn’t say anything doesn’t imply causation, but if I do say something and somebody gets killed directly because of it, then I could be blamed.