A carjacking suspect chased by police in Richmond, California, crashed into a car causing a fatal auto accident on October 27, 2008. 76-year-old Mary Shepard of Benton, Arkansas was killed, while others were seriously injured. According to a news report in the Contra Costa Times, the 10/27/08 crash involved four vehicles on San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante.
The chase involving Jordan Taitano, a 34-year-old parolee, was initially “low-speed,” but gradually increased in speed as the suspect failed to yield, said California Highway Patrol officials, who are investigating the incident. Officials said skid marks on the road showed where Taitano’s white Chevy pickup slammed into a tan Mercedes, pushing it about 100 feet into two cars parked at the curb. While one car flipped over on the sidewalk, another crashed into a brick-and-wrought iron fence. Mary Shepard, who was visiting her family in California, was a passenger in the back seat of the Mercedes. Shepard’s daughter and son-in-law, who were in the front seat, suffered major injuries.
My heart goes out to the family of Mary Shepard, who are not only dealing with a senseless tragedy and death in the family, but also caring for two seriously injured members. Please keep this family in your prayers. I wish the two injured victims a speedy and complete recovery.
Based on news reports, Jordan Taitano does seem to have been a dangerous criminal. But anyone can see how tragic it is when innocent bystanders or motorists are catastrophically injured or killed during such pursuits. California Vehicle Code Section 17004.7 provides immunity to police departments that have adopted a “vehicle pursuit policy.”
The same code section further states: “A public agency employing peace officers that adopts and promulgates a written policy on, and provides regular and periodic training on an annual basis for, vehicular pursuits … is immune from liability for civil damages for personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the collision of a vehicle being operated by an actual or suspected violator of the law who is being, has been, or believes he or she is being or has been, pursued in a motor vehicle by a peace officer employed by the public entity.”
The law requires that all peace officers in the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read and understood their department’s pursuit policy. But even if an officer (or officers) fails to sign this policy, the law states, it should not be used to impose liability on an individual officer or the public entity.
So if the Richmond Police Department has adopted a pursuit policy, that is all that is needed to grant the department and the city immunity from a lawsuit. The police department does not have to prove that the officers involved had read that policy or understood it. They don’t have to prove that their own policy was being followed at the time of the incident.
In my mind, there is no question that a person who breaks the law or poses a serious danger to the public must be brought to justice. However, is it fair for the police to engage in a high speed pursuit for a minor traffic infraction or misdemeanor if they are likely to be endangering the general public?
There must be a balancing test between danger to the public and the need to apprehend a suspect. The gravity of the suspected offense must be balanced with public safety. Our justice system should not allow peace officers to engage in high-speed pursuits without weighing the good that comes from catching the suspect against the risk of injury and/or death to members of the public.
But conservative judges are likely to rule that there is no liability on the part of the police in order to take the burden off law enforcement officials. This helps them make a quick judgment call during a fast and dangerous pursuit. What’s the problem with this type of ruling? It shifts the burden of the damages suffered during the pursuit from the police to the injured victims, since the police have immunity. They have the option of getting out of the situation unscathed. Innocent bystanders, who are injured or sometimes killed, as in this Richmond incident, are sadly left with no options.