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It is unlikely that Simpson v. the City of Miami will turn into the trial of the century. Yet in the same way O.J. Simpson's case helped place the issue of domestic violence before the public, so a recent court decision on behalf of another Simpson could change the way local police deal with such abuse, which is the number-one health problem for women in Dade County.
In June 1993, 33-year-old Simpson obtained a permanent injunction against her abusive boyfriend, 40-year-old Carl Hurd. The injunction prohibited Hurd from getting near Morena Simpson or her mother's central Miami home, where she and the couple's six-month-old child lived. A violation of the injunction would constitute a misdemeanor. In addition, the order allowed police to arrest Hurd based on the simple belief that the injunction had been violated -- without an arrest warrant or having actually witnessed the violation. After a judge signed the order, both Hurd and the Miami Police Department were notified.
Simpson had good cause to worry about her ex-boyfriend. In the previous twenty years, Hurd had accumulated a long list of arrests for crimes that included aggravated assault, weapons possession, and child abuse.
But despite the injunction, Hurd showed up on Simpson's doorstep March 24, 1994. After threatening her and briefly grabbing the child, he bicycled off. Simpson then called Miami police. Later that afternoon Ofcr. Jesus Fuentes, who in the past had been summoned to intervene in disputes between the two, located and spoke with Hurd on a street several blocks from the house.
Lawyers for the Simpson family say witnesses saw Fuentes place Hurd in his squad car. Fuentes disputes this. He says the two simply talked on the street, and he adds that, at the time, Hurd denied he had gone to the house. Fuentes says that before departing he warned Hurd to stay away from Simpson. "I didn't feel comfortable arresting him for violating the [injunction] if I didn't see him do it," Fuentes says today.
The next day Hurd, who ignored the officer's warning, approached Simpson as she was leaving her mother's house. Suddenly he produced a semiautomatic pistol and fired several times into her chest. Simpson's brother tackled Hurd and held him as his sister lay bleeding in the street while police and paramedics converged on the scene. Rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Simpson died shortly after arrival. Hurd pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received a life sentence.
Eventually Morena Simpson's mother, Betty Simpson, sued the City of Miami over the death of her daughter, arguing that Hurd had actually been in police custody only to be negligently released. City attorneys argued that Fuentes's actions were protected under "sovereign immunity," which shields police from being held responsible for a future murder simply because they failed to arrest the eventual killer. In the same way, one cannot sue the police if they are called to respond to a crime but do not arrive. Dade Circuit Judge Leonard Rivkind agreed with the city's position, and the Third District Court of Appeal upheld Rivkind's decision, though Judge Robert Shevin was a dissenter on the three-judge panel.
The dissenting judge argued that the injunction created a "duty of care" by which the police department had a special responsibility to Morena Simpson. For example, a traffic cop has a so-called duty of care to not direct cars into collisions. Building on Shevin's dissent, Betty Simpson's attorney David Glantz filed a motion for rehearing, asserting that the appeals court "misapprehended" the case. "To my great amazement and pleasure, on October 1 we got an order that reinstated the complaint," Glantz marvels.
Shevin wrote a special opinion to underscore the court's change of mind. He emphasized that if injunctions are to succeed in protecting victims, the police must rigorously enforce them. "The police force is the only body with the capability and the duty to address these violations when they occur," the judge concluded.
Now, in a new trial, Glantz must convince a jury that Fuentes restrained Hurd and so crossed a threshold under Florida domestic-violence statutes whereby the violator of an injunction must be be taken into custody and brought to court as quickly as possible. For Officer Fuentes, Simpson's death was a calamity, but he does not feel personally responsible. "Even if I had arrested him," the policeman says, "he would have been released within 30 hours and would have probably killed her anyway."
According to victims' advocates, the decision to reinstate Simpson's complaint is in line with a trend already under way among Dade's various police departments. Today there is a greater likelihood than in the past that police will arrest attackers in domestic disputes, according to Robert Schroeder, director of Miami's Safespace Shelter for battered women. "Before, [domestic violence] was viewed as a family issue; now [police] feel they are enforcing the law."
Dade's domestic violence court issues roughly 800 injunctions each month on behalf of victims, according to Ivon Mesa, director of the domestic violence intake unit for Dade County. "There isn't any possible way to protect someone 24 hours a day," Mesa acknowledges, "but the injunction does play a very important role because it enables police officers to make an arrest." Advocates hope more aggressive police intervention can help prevent tragedies like the murder of Morena Simpson, whose killer's arrest report ended with this line: "He also was in violation of a domestic violence injunction.