Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Due Process Clause is phrased as a limitation on a state's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. Like its counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government from abusing its power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression.
Petitioner, a minor child, brought an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against respondents, a county's department of social services and its various employees, for failing to intervene to protect the child against the risk of violence at his father's hands. The child's father beat him to the point where he was deemed to be profoundly retarded. The child, by his guardian ad litem, alleged that respondents knew or should have known about the risk posed by his father. The district court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment, and the appellate court affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts' decisions.
Did the district's award of summary judgment in favor of respondent violate petitioner's rights under the substantive component of the Due Process Clause?
A State's failure to protect an individual against private violence generally does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause, because the Clause imposes no duty on the State to provide members of the general public with adequate protective services. The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security; while it forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, its language cannot fairly be read to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means.