Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stalkers: The Psychological Terrorist

The Duty to Warn

University of California (Berkley) campus building
University of California (Berkley) campus

In the late 1960s, Prosenjit Poddar, a native of India, attended the University of California at Berkeley and met Tatiana Tarasoff at a dance. He developed a strong romantic interest in her. When they shared a quick New Year's Eve kiss, he believed it was a sign that they were engaged. Yet Tatiana's disinterest confused Poddar, so he persisted in believing that she in fact had feelings for him. He soon suffered an emotional breakdown and attempted to end all contact, but she called him to tell him how much she missed him. His obsessions returned and he believed he would have to kill Tatiana to end them.

Poddar sought outpatient psychiatric services at a hospital in Berkeley. The treating psychiatrist prescribed anti-psychotic medication, and then referred Poddar to a psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Moore, for counseling. Despite their sessions, Poddar persisted in his delusion that Tatiana would eventually love him. To prove his love, he purchased a handgun to orchestrate a life-threatening situation from which he could rescue her. Dr. Moore said that he might have to take steps to restrain Poddar, which sent Poddar angrily from his office.

Dr. Moore discussed this with colleagues and mentioned to the campus police that Poddar was threatening to kill a girl. Officers found him and thought he appeared rational, but eventually Poddar's delusions reached a breaking point. He went to Tatiana's house, armed with a knife and a pellet gun. She ran from him and he shot her and then stabbed her 14 times, killing her. Then he turned himself in. He was convicted of second-degree murder and was released after serving five years.

Yet this case had an impact on the relationship of psychiatry to stalking and violent obsessions. Where once what was said between doctor and patient was privileged, that was about to change.

The Tarasoffs instigated a civil case of negligence against the Regents of the University of California. In 1974, the California Supreme Court found that, despite confidentiality, a duty to warn exists when the therapist determines that a warning is essential to avert a danger rising from the patient's condition.

The mental health profession quickly responded that they have no inherent ability to predict violence and that such a ruling violated their "special" relationship. It would also hinder patients from trusting them, as well as generate false positive predictions as a means of diverting liability. Overall, this would be a detriment.

The court then issued a second opinion. They still found that therapists have a duty to potential victims, but they need only use "reasonable care" to protect the person. That is, the therapist may have to civilly commit or voluntarily hospitalize the patient to avoid the potential for harm, rather than actively warn a potential victim.

Most jurisdictions now recognize a Tarasoff-type duty, but some limit it to situations in which the patient communicates a serious threat of physical violence against an identifiable victim. Standards vary from state to state. However, there is no automatic duty to warn a potential victim, and in fact, issuing a warning has proven ineffective, because more violence has been shown to result after a warning than if no warning is issued. In any event, there are alternatives.

Yet with the advent of the Internet, a new type of anonymous stalking is creating many new dangers that are difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.

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