Castle Rock v. Gonzales

I was just watching a video on Cracked’s Youtube channel, link, which discusses a case from 2011 where a commuter on a train (this is told by the commuter in question for what that’s worth) was stabbed by Maksim Gelman who was the subject of a manhunt for a stabbing spree link. Gelman first approached the engineer’s compartment and demanded to be let in. Two police officers were lying in wait there. He wound up stabbing the narrator, Joe Lizito, who managed to subdue him. According to Lizito, the police stood by while he subdued Gelman. He wound up suing the city, which found against him based on Castle Rock v. Gonzales, saying that the police did not have a duty to help, or at least that’s what I gathered from the video. As you can expect, this is version of events is pretty rage-inducing. I therefore humbly ask the board’s legal eagles to explain the logic of the decision. One thing I have learned on these boards is that things are seldom as simple as they seem on their face.

BTW, I know that gun rights advocates frequently cite this case to bolster their claims to need firearms for self defense, but I would really like to avoid that aspect of this case, so I appeal to would-be hijackers to start their own threads.


The basic principle, as I understand it, is that police officers have a general duty to uphold the law - but they do not have a specific duty to stop any particular crime.

That sounds ridiculous but it’s really necessary when you look at the big picture. If you held the police responsible for failing to prevent a particular crime from occurring, you’d make it impossible for them to function. Because the majority of the crimes that occur could have theoretically been prevented if the police had done something different.

You own a store on Main Street and your store gets robbed. You find out the police department had a police officer on duty in your area but he made ten patrols on West Avenue and only made two on Main Street. If he had made an equal amount of patrols on both streets, he would have seen your store being robbed and caught the criminal. So you sue the police department for not providing you with equal police protection.

A month later, the police are sending an equal amount of patrols on Main Street and West Avenue. And then they start getting sued again by store owners on West Avenue. They argue that West Avenue is five times as long as Main Street and has a crime rate that’s ten times higher than Main Street. But the police department is giving Main Street just as many patrols as West Avenue gets. The police should be patrolling more where there are more crimes.

A month after that, there’s a lawsuit from a store owner on Washington Road. He’s suing because his store got robbed. Washington Road used to be a nice safe neighborhood but now the police department is sending all its patrols to Main Street and West Avenue so the criminals are targeting Washington Road.

The reality is there are a finite amount of police resources and they can’t be everywhere and prevent every crime. So the legal system has ruled that the police are not responsible for failing to prevent a crime even if it can be shown that it would have been possible for them to have prevented it.

I’ll grant you the case you described seems like a pretty extreme version of that situation. But the general principle still applies.

Well I am wondering about a crime committed in an officers presence, but most any riot would have more illegal activity then the police resources needed to prevent them.

It does seem that there would have been a call for some action even if unofficial.

Not a Lawyer!


I asked a officer from these parts about people who break traffic laws in front of them and they dont stop them and he said unofficially that it depends on how dangerous the offense is and if hes doing anything important …

But if hes busy he might call it in …but since we don’t have a dedicated traffic division they don’t get the time for much traffic control

look up the 92 LA riots… the largest sheriff department in America and the 2nd largest metro police force couldn’t contain them

orders came down that unless it was physical assault not to do anything about it…

they ended up calling out the national guard but took so long that they were basically over by the time they got there

I’ll say. The general principle makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense that armed officers have no duty to intervene to protect a victim of an assault as it’s happening. I guess Lizito could fight it all the way up to the Supreme Court, but it’s probably not worth it to him.

Perhaps there was nothing that could have been done, but Gates did nothing to prepare for a possible reaction to the verdict, and pulled police out of the rioting areas early. It’s not like the LA cops were overwhelmed. They didn’t even try.

You are referring to the “Public Duty Doctrine.” This was the first link that came up in a google search and it describes it fairly well: