High Court Turns Down Drowning Case Appeal

The Supreme Court said Monday it will not hear an appeal testing whether local governments must allow volunteer rescuers to stand in for government employees.

Relatives of drowning victim Eugene Beck claimed that police in Manistee, Mich., violated the Constitution by preventing trained volunteer divers from entering the Manistee River.

To save money, the city had stopped providing underwater rescue service in 1993. Private, volunteer rescuers could only fill in with permission from the local sheriff.

The sheriff's office maintained a dive team that served a wider area.

Beck and another man fell or jumped off a bridge and into the cold river in January 1995. The other man made it to shore, but Beck, 28, remained in the water.

Police were on the scene in less than two minutes, followed shortly by two volunteer frogmen who were part of a group organized after the city stopped providing divers.

The volunteer divers claim they were ready to go into the water 17 minutes after Beck fell. By that time, he had slipped from onlookers' view.

But Police Chief Robert Hornkohl ordered the pair to stay out of the water, pending approval from the sheriff. They complied, and waited another half-hour for the sheriff to arrive.

When Sheriff Edward Haik got there, his own divers went into the river and recovered Beck's body 19 minutes later.

The family blames the city for Beck's death, arguing that Beck might well have been saved if volunteer divers were allowed to go after him.

The city's policy was so arbitrary that it violated Beck's 14th Amendment rights, the family claimed. The amendment guarantees that states may not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."

If the city could not provide quick rescue service, Hornkohl was obligated to allow the private divers to try, the family claimed.

A federal judge threw out the family's lawsuit on grounds that Hornkohl did not physically prevent the volunteer rescue, and that he was justified to think that a volunteer effort would "complicate the better-equipped efforts of the sheriff's diving team."

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed that decision last year and ordered that the case go to trial. The city appealed to the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for the city argued that local governments frequently prevent private rescue efforts at accident scenes. Such efforts can be dangerous, and can also hinder the work of professionals, the city argued.

The case is Hornkohl v. Beck, 00-1170.