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Bench Book - 5.3.7 The Public Duty Doctrine

Some states recognize the so-called public duty doctrine—the idea that a government official has no legal duty to protect an individual citizen from harm caused by a third person. The rule recognizes the limited resources of law enforcement and a refusal to expose the police and others to liability for every criminal’s act. The doctrine applies to probation officers in some jurisdictions. In North Carolina, for example, the public duty doctrine barred a claim against a probation officer who failed to take action when an offender’s electronic leg band broke and the offender went on to kill a woman. Humphries v. Dep’t of Corr., 479 S.E.2d 27 (N.C. Ct. App. 1996).

There are exceptions to the public duty doctrine in the jurisdictions where it exists. In North Carolina, a promise by law enforcement to protect a specific person can give rise to a special duty that overrides the public duty doctrine. See, e.g., Braswell v. Braswell, 390 S.E.2d 752 (N.C. Ct. App. 1990). Additionally, certain categories of people fall within a special relationship exception to the doctrine, such as police informants. In the probation context, a probation officer might be deemed to have a special relationship with the children who live in the residence approved by the officer if the offender assaults those children. Blaylock v. N.C. Dep’t of Corr., Div. of Cmty. Corr., 685 S.E.2d 140 (N.C. Ct. App. 2009).