Are the police free from liability when a pursuit kills or maims the innocent?
Here’s an interesting question that is before the U.S. Supreme Court: “Can a police officer be sued for hitting a fleeing car during a high-speed police chase and causing an automobile accident that leaves the driver badly injured or dead?”
The answer to this question and the high court’s decision could change the way things work on Southern California freeways, as explained by a Feb. 26 article in the Los Angeles Times.
According to Times writer David Savage, the court’s answer appeared to be “no.” Our television stations must be breathing a huge sigh of relief. These chases do after all attract a large number of viewers who can’t wait to find out how it all ended.
This case has drawn a lot of attention because it could lay the foundation for national rules to limit police chases. According to the Times article, more than 300 people are killed every year in police chases. A majority of the victims are those who flee the police, but a large number of victims are also innocent bystanders. Several police officers are also injured or killed in these crashes.
But during arguments this week, most of the Supreme Court justices said they were not inclined to tie the hands of police and restrict them from using force when they are pursuing a person, who could pose substantial danger to the public.
Justices also watched a high-speed crash in Georgia from six years ago, where the fleeing driver ended up being paralyzed after being bumped by a police car following a long chase. The video prompted the following comments from Justice Antonin Scalia.
“That was the scariest chase I ever saw since “The French Connection.” It was frightening…cars coming in the opposite direction, at night, on a two-lane winding road”, quoted the LA Times story.
Toward the end of the hearing, the Times article stated, most of the justices said they leaned in favor of a ruling that says police may use “reasonable force to stop a dangerously speeding vehicle.” The justices won’t come back with a ruling for several months.
At Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys we have faced this question in cases before. In one, our client, a passenger in a automobile proceeding through a green light was struck by a vehicle fleeing the police in a high speed chase that had lasted some time. Our client was catastrophically injured.
Should the police be responsible? Would it make a difference if the fleeing driver was suspected of a dangerous felony? Would it make a difference if the fleeing driver was suspected of having a brake light out? Would the length of the pursuit make a difference? What if it lasted more than an hour?
In my mind there is no question that a person who defies the law must be brought to justice. However, is it right for the police to engage in a high speed pursuit for a traffic infraction or minor misdemeanor, if they are likely to be endangering the general public?
There must be a balancing test between the danger to the public and the need to apprehend the suspect. The seriousness of the suspected offense must be balanced with public safety.
It is not consistent with our justice system to allow peace officers to engage in a high speed pursuit without weighing the good to come from catching the suspect and the danger to the general public. On the other hand, conservative judges are likely to rule that there is no liability on the part of the police, in order to take the burden off the police to make a judgment call while in pursuit of a suspect. The problem with this type of ruling is that it shifts the burden of the damages suffered during the chase from the police to the injured innocent bystanders. The police have the option of backing off. The unsuspecting bystander has no options.