Officers chased a suspected thief over fifteen miles before the pursuit ended in a multi-vehicle collision that left several people seriously injured.
Police initially spotted a yellow Mustang which had earlier been reported stolen near the intersection of Orangethorpe Avenue and Valley View Boulevard. When the driver initially refused to stop, officers chased the Mustang onto the 91 Freeway into Los Angeles. Police did not let up even after the Mustang veered into a residential area. As the chase continued over wet Lynwood streets, both the Mustang and at least one police cruiser lost control. The Mustang overturned before careening into several parked cars. At least four people, including officers, the Mustang driver, and Mustang passengers, were seriously injured.
Officers recovered no weapons and did not suspect that the alleged car theft was violent in any way.
Understanding High Speed Police Chases
Over the last several decades, reckless police pursuits have killed far more people than most natural and man-made disasters, like fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, put together. Largely because of these statistics safety advocates have long cautioned police departments to either eliminate or curtail these actions. The Department of Justice has joined in as well, first calling high speed police chases “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” over two decades ago. In addition to the raw statistics, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about reckless chases over petty crimes, like shoplifting and speeding; too many times, these chases result in death or serious injury.
On the other side of the equation, police officers usually have a legitimate reason for these actions. Many cite a variation of the “broken windows” theory. If officers allow low-level offenders to run because a pursuit might create a danger, higher-level offenders will be emboldened to run as well. Plus, they point out, most felony arrests occur after traffic stops, so if the driver runs, the driver more than likely has something to hide. Finally, they insist, officers cannot select which laws they want to enforce. All these points are perfectly valid.
The bottom line is that high-speed chases give officers adrenaline rushes, whether they’re chasing mass murderers or overtime parkers. That’s why there are high-speed pursuits on California streets and highways, and that’s why they will continue.
Many police departments have no written policies about high-speed chases, and if they exist, they usually give the officers such broad discretion that they serve no useful purpose in determining legal liability. While no one would argue that police officers driving squad cars in emergency mode (siren and/or lights on) do not have to follow the normal “rules of the road,” like speed limits and stop signs. But, this immunity is not absolute. To help officer strike the proper balance between protecting and serving people (e.g. “getting the bad guy” and ensuring bystander safety), the International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed a model pursuit policy which help officers evaluate their chases based on:
- Nature of Offense: If the offender is known to be violent, there is an immediate need to subdue the suspect. In the Buena Park chase, officers pursed a suspect who was, at best, a thief but more likely a joyrider. Neither is a crime of violence.
- Geographic Conditions: Chases on divided highways when there is little traffic are much less dangerous to bystanders than chases in busy, lower-speed residential areas that may have lots of pedestrians. Although the Buena Park chase started on a highway, it ended on the streets of Lynwood, and under the model policy, officers would have been well advised to terminate the chase at that point.
- Environmental Conditions: Even experienced motorists in non-stressful situations have almost no control over speeding vehicles on wet roads, as evidenced by the horrific crash in Buena Park.
Under the model rule, there is a presumption that not pursuing a suspect at high speeds is in the best interests of the public.
In a prior era, governments were immune from liability lawsuits, on the theory that officials governed by divine right and therefore could never be wrong. California and most other jurisdictions have waived their sovereign immunity, at least to a large extent, making such lawsuits possible. Although taxpayer lawsuits over certain government policies are usually still illegal, police officers and other government workers can be held liable for damages if they would have been legally responsible for such damages if they were private citizens. Reckless driving lawsuits, whether or not the tortfeasor (negligent driver) wore a badge, certainly meet this standard.
Under the California Tort Claims Act, before victims can sue in court, they must furnish written notice of claims to the appropriate government entity within six months of the injury. According to traditional third party liability theory, the agency that employed the tortfeasor is liable for the victim’s damages.
High speed police chases often cause serious damages. For a free consultation with an aggressive personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, contact Citywide Law Group. Attorneys can ensure that victims receive ongoing medical care, even if they have no money and no insurance.