Judge rules in city of Seaford's favor after handcuffed suspect drowns
DOVER — A federal judge has ruled in favor of a southern Delaware town in a lawsuit filed by a woman whose son drowned after he jumped into a river while handcuffed in an attempt to escape police.
The mother of 19-year-old Justin Johnson claimed that Seaford police failed to save him in July 2014 because the city had not trained them in water rescue.
An attorney for the city pointed out in a court filing that Johnson's mother had acknowledged that there is no law requiring police departments in Delaware to train officers in water rescue. He also noted that water rescue training is typically the province of local fire departments and rescue units, and that Seaford's water rescue unit had responded to the incident.
In a ruling this week, Judge Stephanos Bibas said police have no constitutional duty to save someone from his own mistake.
Bibas said the city might have had a duty to save Johnson if it made him more vulnerable to drowning and if that danger had been "foreseeable and fairly direct."
"The handcuffs did make Johnson more vulnerable — but only because he then jumped in the river. That was not foreseeable, and his mother does not argue otherwise," the judge wrote.
Bibas also said the case might be different if officers had taken Johnson into custody and held him against his will, because he would have been unable to care for himself.
"Johnson did not drown because the police had restrained his movement; he drowned only because they failed to," the judge wrote. "Because Johnson was not in police custody when he drowned, the city and the police had no constitutional duty to rescue him. So it does not matter whether they had an adequate water-rescue policy. They had no duty to have any policy at all."
Johnson drowned after police tried to take him into custody on burglary, fraud, identity theft and conspiracy charges. A warrant had been issued for his arrest based on a complaint filed by his mother after her bank notified her about questionable transactions involving her credit card. Police learned that Johnson and a companion had gotten into his mother's home, stolen her credit card and used it for six unauthorized transactions.
According to court records, Johnson's mother identified her son and the other suspect after being shown photos and surveillance video of them leaving a local Wal-Mart after using her credit card.
Police spotted Johnson a week later riding his bike at the city's annual Nanticoke Riverfest.
Officers approached Johnson and told him he couldn't ride his bike in the cordoned-off area. As he got off his bicycle, officers told him he was under arrest and handcuffed him. As they began to pat him down and search his backpack, Johnson bumped an officer with his shoulder and took off running.
Police said Johnson jumped into the river, rolled over on his back and began kicking his legs to try to swim away from shore. One officer said Johnson appeared to be smiling at police before he stopped, appeared to tread water briefly before going under, then began yelling for help.
Two officers removed their gun belts and entered the water in an effort to save Johnson but were unsuccessful.