When 10-year-old Ronnie Tolleson was found dead in a neighbor's garage a week after he had been kidnaped from his home in 1980, the boy's father thought that the city's Police Department was partly responsible.
Ronald A. Tolleson filed suit against the City of West Covina and a dozen members of the Police Department, alleging that their negligence had led to his son's death. Tolleson asked the court for $5 million in punitive damages.
Seven years have passed since Ronnie's death, but Tolleson's case has yet to reach a jury.
Because of court backlogs, it was 1986 before the case first came before Pomona Superior Court Judge Arthur Baldonado. The judge, in response to a request by the defendants, declared it a "non-suit"--a ruling that means the evidence presented by the plaintiff is insufficient to warrant a jury trial.
Baldonado dismissed the case, but Tolleson appealed that decision.
On Oct. 26, the Court of Appeal reversed Baldonado's decision, and it looked as if the case would finally get a jury trial.
But on Tuesday, the lawyer who represents the West Covina police officers said they will ask the California Supreme Court to reverse the latest decision. "The Supreme Court may not grant us a hearing, but I think they will, given the dissent," said the lawyer, Thomas J. Feeley.
Could Take Months
In a dissenting opinion on the ruling by a three-judge panel of the appellate court, Justice L. Thaxton Hanson urged the Supreme Court to "grant any petition which may be filed by the city."
Feeley said it could be several months before the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case. Charles Simon, an attorney who represents Tolleson, said neither he nor his client would discuss the case.
Central to arguments on both sides of the suit is the question of whether law enforcement agencies can be held liable, under certain circumstances, for the sufferings of crime victims. The Court of Appeal ruling indicated that there are circumstances where police officers could, conceivably, be held liable.
Writing for the two-judge majority, Justice Campbell Lucas concluded that the "lack of thought, the carelessness of plan and execution which was demonstrated by the police . . . and the inattention to basic skills, may have contributed substantially to the tragic result."
Lucas cited several examples of "carelessness" on the part of West Covina police:
The residence of suspect Danny Jerome Young, who was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and kidnaping and is serving a life sentence without chance of parole, was not thoroughly searched. Ronnie's body was found in Young's garage a week after the kidnaping, but the officer who searched the house the night Ronnie disappeared had not entered either the garage or the attic.
Although several police officers were stationed near the site where the ransom requested by the kidnapers was to be placed, and one officer saw a man pick up the money, the suspect was not apprehended.
Although Police Chief Craig Meacham was the only member of the force to have previously participated in a kidnaping investigation, the department did not accept an offer of assistance from the FBI.
"By their conduct," Lucas concluded, "the West Covina Police Department may have increased the danger to Ronnie, whose dependence on them was substantial."
The case began March 28, 1980, when Ronald Tolleson returned home from work at 4 p.m. He was planning to drive his son to baseball practice, but Ronnie was not waiting for him. He drove around their neighborhood looking for the boy. After he returned home, Tolleson received three phone calls from a man who said he had Ronnie and would release the boy in exchange for $3,000.
After receiving the first phone call, Tolleson called police.
Under their direction, he delivered $100--all the money he could raise--to the park the caller had named. The money was wrapped around a stack of torn newspapers to make it look like more than it was. Although the police had the area under surveillance, they did not apprehend the man who picked up the money.
The police began searching the neighborhood that night. They found Ronnie's body a week later. The medical examiners concluded that Ronnie had probably been alive for at least three days after the abduction took place.
When police discovered that Young, a former Youth Authority inmate, lived two doors away from the Tollesons, he became the focus of their investigation. (Young was on parole after serving a one-year sentence for a residential robbery.) Their suspicions were heightened when, four days after Ronnie disappeared, a woman claimed that Young had tried to kidnap one of her children a few weeks earlier.
Feeley, the lawyer for the police officers, called the ruling by the three-judge panel "a complete new turn of the law, a new departure" in the area of liability.
He said that if the appellate court decision is allowed to stand, "whenever someone is injured or killed as a result of criminal activity, it would be easy enough to put together at least a claim against the police."
In his dissent, Hanson wrote that "the theory of plaintiff's case herein is tantamount to a malpractice suit for alleged faulty police investigation. Such suits have posed tremendous problems--still unresolved--in every professional field (e.g. medical, legal, etc.) to which they have been applied. If such malpractice suits are extended into the area of police investigation, we may begin to slide down a most slippery slope."
In the majority decision, Lucas wrote that a public entity or public servant can be found liable for injury to a citizen only if a "special relationship" exists between the two.
He cited a 1975 Court of Appeal ruling that a special relationship exists when a public servant "voluntarily assumes a protective duty toward a member of the public and undertakes action on behalf of that member, thereby inducing reliance." Such a relationship existed between the police and Ronald Tolleson during the kidnaping investigation, Lucas concluded.
Lucas said the California Supreme Court has ruled that a special relationship may be determined to have existed if the officers involved have made statements that induce a false sense of security in the victim.
Lucas wrote that Tolleson received such assurances from the police, including a statement that they were experienced in handling such cases, when, in fact, only the police chief had been involved in a prior kidnaping investigation.
"The defendants' assurances to plaintiff concerning their capabilities extended beyond those that might understandably be made to any citizen involved in a crime, intended merely to foster comfort under difficult conditions," Lucas writes. "The assurances were either outright falsehoods or negligent misstatements, and the common motivator appears to have been a refusal to accept help from a more experienced agency, the FBI, who had offered assistance."
Feeley said this interpretation is unfair to the Police Department. He said the kinds of assurances the West Covina officers made to Tolleson are frequently offered to relatives of crime victims to give them hope. He said it was unfair of the court to construe them as a guarantee to Tolleson that the situation would end well.
Hanson's dissent made the same point. He wrote that he saw no special relationship between Tolleson and the police officers, in part because the officers' statement that "we'll get your boy back" was not intended to give Tolleson a false sense of security.
"No police officer can guarantee a successful or happy result of an investigation, and no reasonable person would interpret the remark otherwise," Hanson wrote.
Hanson concluded that the police investigation was "carried on vigorously and in good faith." He wrote that "Ronnie's father, in essence, seeks in this action to recover from the defendant city for Young's criminal acts. However, where the police are not responsible for the occurrence of the crime, or for a particular victim's involvement, it cannot be said to have placed the victim in danger. . . .
"In the case at the bench, the police did not create the peril. Neither did they withdraw their protection after extending it. Indeed, it is not the protection provided by the police that is at issue, but rather the speed and success of their investigation. I find no basis in the law for second-guessing their decisions or tactics, or for speculating on how other such decisions or tactics might have achieved a result less tragic than the one which ensued."