How Much Care do Police Officers Owe to Suspects in Custody?

In Robineau v. France, the death of a suspect in custody caught the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.  Dr. Michel Robineau was in the Tribunal de grande instance courthouse under police custody, in connection with an investigation following “a complaint for rape filed by two young women who accused him of unjustified vaginal probing.”  Robineau asked the police if they could take off his handcuffs and let him talk to his attorney in private.  The police honored his request, and twenty minutes into Robineau’s conversation with his attorney, he unexpectedly stood up, apologized to the lawyer, and jumped out of the window to his death.

Robineau’s family believed that the police were obliged to keep him safe.  Robineau’s family filed a criminal complaint for manslaughter and a civil action for damages against the officers.  Both cases were dismissed, and the investigating judge in the criminal matter stated that it was not foreseeable that the suspect would commit suicide.  On appeal, the Court of Cassation, rejected the application.  Robineau’s family then re-filed with the European Court of Human Rights “relying on Article 2 (right to life) arguing that the State is obliged to protect a person from committing suicide while in custody.”

The Court found that “people held in police custody should be considered as being in a vulnerable situation, like any detainee, and that the authorities had a duty to protect them.”  But Robineau showed no signs of being suicidal.  The police did not uncuff him so that he could commit suicide; the police respected his wishes by uncuffing him, and treated him more like a regular individual speaking to his attorney in private, and less like a prisoner.  Should they be punished for being humane?  The psychiatrist who examined Robineau found him stable, the suspect appeared calm, and there had been no evidence implying that Robineau was suicidal.  The European Court of Human Rights held that “a more precise legal frame work was needed” in these situations because police alone should not be expected to assess a suspect’s psychological situation.  And in this particular case, the precautions the police took were sufficient, thus the application by Robineau’s family was denied.

Do you agree with this ruling?  This case reminded me of Ariel Castro committing suicide in prison here in America.  Do you think the police acted appropriately, and if so, should the United States reach a similar decision should Castro’s family ever sue?

Source: Hudoc



  1. I agree with the ruling by all the tribunals involved, but I do sympathize with the family. I also cannot think of an appropriate legal standard to impose upon officials charged with the custody of defendants in jails or in prisons. Most of us I think would agree that the act of suicide can be heart wrenching with serious emotional implications for the friends and families of the victim. However, if we are to analyze suicide in its most basic form, it is still an intentional act committed by the person amongst him or herself. Thus, a legal standard that would make other individuals responsible to me more protective or cognizant of another individual’s predilection towards suicidal ideation would necessarily force others to act on the individual’s behalf.

    The problem with this – at least in American jurisdictions – is that our basic premises of tort and criminal law do not impose a duty upon third parties to help others in danger or need, unless the third party was somehow responsible for bringing about the danger or need of that particular situation. You may agree or disagree with how our country treats these situations. The fact is, however, that currently, the family of Ariel Castro would probably not have any redress or remedy based on our tort law.

  2. Although suicides are so unfortunate and sad I agree with the ruling. I think in that both cases it seems like the police exercised their duty of care in a reasonable manner. I that that imposing a stricter duty to protect should only exist when there has been a determination regarding the inmate’s mental state. It seems like in both cases, both men showed no indication that they were suicidal and so I find it hard to blame the officers for failing to deter their ultimate actions. I also think that rather than imposing a strict duty these cases call, instead, for a closer or more constant monitoring of inmates’ mental states and more resources for that purpose.

  3. I also agree with the ruling. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights should be interpreted very broadly as it applies to prisoners, such as in this case. The Convention should not be read to mandate an unfair, absolute duty on prison guards to ensure that prisoners in their custody do not commit suicide. This would be unfair and unrealistic. Charging a prison guard, who is probably not trained in psychology, with manslaughter for his failure to know what was going on inside the prisoner’s head? This seems absurd. Rather, the duty placed on authorities should emphasize a more global-duty: the prison should be required to have medical evaluations by a trained psychologist. Prisoners whom are determined to be “at risk” should be more closely monitored (both by the psychologists and the prison guards). Then, if a prisoner commits suicide, the Court’s inquiry should be to whether the prison’s procedures were followed (in good faith). Criminal liability should only arise where the authorities deviated from the defined course of treatment meant to prevent an inmate’s suicide.

  4. I agree with the ruling of the court. Suicide is always a messy issue because many times people point a finger and blame someone for lack of preventative action. In this situation, how were the police suppose to know that he was going to commit suicide? All of the psychological checks pointed to a stable human being and blaming the police for a detained suspect in killing himself is somewhat far-fetched. This type of situation does not happen every day and police do not really have any way to train for something like this. For this reason, it is tough to make an argument for a higher standard of duty for police officers or prison guards. Especially in the current case where the suspect was talking to his lawyer to discuss their legal plan of action. You would think that someone would be calmer since they have some help on their side.
    There should be more procedures in place to help prevent acts like this from occurring in the future, but it should not place a higher standard of duty on police officers or prison guards. There should be institutional procedures which call for frequent checking on all inmates or detained suspects. This would help them evaluate each person better, and discover anything that might lead them to think that they might be a potential suicide victim.

  5. This is a great article Gloria and it highlights a very contentious issue. I personally think the court got this right. I was not familiar with the case until you reported on it and while I was reading, I was afraid the court was going to find the policemen liable for Robineau’s death. While I do think that police officers have a duty to make the conditions of incarceration habitable for inmates, I don’t think this should carry over to the conditions created by the inmate himself. You can’t predict when a person is going to take their own life. No matter how many precautions and procedures are in place to prevent suicides, these can’t negate the will of the person. As the saying goes, “If there is a will, there is a way.” I am glad the court noted that police officers should not be tasked with the assessment of an inmate’s psychological condition. They are not trained for this skill and therefore should not be held liable the ramifications of a deteriorating psychological condition.

  6. Although I can understand the sadness of the family from losing a loved one, I agree with the courts ruling in this case. Police officers are possessed with a duty to those who are in custody but I feel the standard should be to acts that are reasonably foreseeable. The officers were not responsible to conduct psychiatric analysis on Robineau, but can only be held accountable for the information given to them about his condition by professionals, who in this case told officers that he was in fact stable. To me it seems as though it was a compassionate gesture for the officers to allow him to enter into a room with his attorney as a human and not as a captive. To hold them accountable for the suicide of a person who at the time seemed to be of sound mind would seem unfair.

  7. Although it is an unfortunate situation for the family, I would have to agree with the ruling by all the tribunals involved. I believe it would be quite difficult to put in place an appropriate legal standard to impose upon officials charged with the custody of suspects. Unless, there is some indication to the officials/officers that the suspect requires a stricter duty to protect, I think the standard of care should be one of reasonableness. I think the police officers in both cases exercised a reasonable duty of care for the suspects. There was no indication to the officers that the suspect was suicidal. The officers uncuffed the suspect to allow him to speak with his attorney, not to let him commit suicide. To hold the police officers liable for an intentional act by the suspects would be unjust. Simply put, the intentional acts were unforeseeable. We cannot treat officials as if they have the capability to look into the future or read people’s minds. It would be absurd to hold the officers accountable for unforeseeable events.

  8. I agree with the ruling that the European Court of Human Rights came to in regards to Robineau’s suicide. The police were attempting to be civilized and allow Robineau the opportunity to speak with his attorney like a human being by not being locked up and handcuffed. The police should not be held responsible for Robineau’s suicide when they did a psychological evaluation and the psychologist determined that there was no indication that Robineau wished to commit suicide. While in custody, the police are supposed to protect the inmates from killing each other; however, there are inmates that are killed in prisons all over the world. Even though the officers have a duty to protect those in their custody, it is not always feasible. It is difficult for police to determine a person’s state of mind in order to prevent killings and suicides. A psychologist cannot read their patient’s mind and say with certainty that their patient is not having suicidal tendencies. It is unfair to hold the police liable for someone’s suicide. The police did all they were able to do for a person in custody who did not show suicidal tendencies. I feel that if a person chooses to take their own life, that is their burden alone and no one should be held responsible for that person’s decision.

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