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  • Cost-Effectiveness Analysis And Product Liability
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  • Police Pursuits and Civil Liability


  • Police Pursuits and Civil Liability

    As many as 40 percent of all 1 motor vehicle police pursuits end in collisions and some of these result in nearly 300 deaths each year of police officers, offenders, or innocent third party individuals. Because many police pursuits result in accidents and injuries, agencies and officers become subjects of civil lawsuits. Initiated in state or federal courts, these lawsuits have resulted cumulatively in case law that directs law enforcement agencies to develop pursuit policies. The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that has changed the threshold of negligence before an agency or officer can be held liable, which will impact police agencies across the United States.

    Because of the critical nature of police pursuit situations, chief executive officers (CEOs) of law enforcement agencies must establish an appropriate policy governing the actions of their personnel during such incidents. In doing so, CEOs first must consider the constraints and allowances set forth by state and federal statutes and court decisions applicable within their jurisdiction. They must create a policy that balances the need to apprehend offenders in the interests of justice with the need to protect citizens from the risks associated with police pursuits. Additionally, the policy must protect the financial interests of the community based upon potential losses of taxpayer dollars following successful litigation against the agency as a result of law enforcement actions deemed inappropriate by the courts. Adopting a policy similar to that of another agency does not easily resolve the CEO’s dilemma because a variety of philosophies exists among the pursuit policies of law enforcement agencies. U.S. federal courts have reviewed numerous police pursuit cases using different standards of conduct and the courts routinely have reviewed the agency’s pursuit policy before rendering a decision. The policy, or lack of same, could impact the outcome of a civil action.

    County of Sacramento v. Lewis

    In the U.S. Supreme Court decision in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, the Court has clarified the federal standard that must be met by plaintiffs who allege police misconduct during vehicle pursuits. The Court held that “the issue in this case is whether a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process by causing death through de-liberate or reckless indifference to life in a high speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender. We answer no, and hold that in such circumstances only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest will satisfy the element of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for adue process violation.”

    On May 22, 1990, Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call regarding a fight. After handling the call, a motorcycle with a driver and a passenger approached the officers at a high rate of speed. The officers attempted to stop the motorcycle, but the driver chose to flee. A high-speed pursuit commenced with the vehicles reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood. The pursuit ended when the motorcycle crashed. Unable to stop, the police vehicle ran over the passenger, who died at the scene. The district court ruled in favor of the police. The court of appeals reversed the decision based upon the standard of deliberate indifference. That court based its decision, in part, on the fact that the deputy violated his agency’s general order concerning police pursuits. The Supreme Court held that the failure of the deputy to adhere to his agency’s pursuit policy was irrelevant. This ruling, in effect, has given police agencies more protection from federal civil litigation generated by police pursuits.

    In County of Sacramento v. Lewis, the Supreme Court clearly defined the standard to be met when considering the liability of police agencies associated with vehicle pursuit. This standard is a much higher benchmark than previous rulings. However, this should not cause complacency.

    Chief executive officers of every law enforcement agency must promulgate a written vehicle pursuit policy that provides clear guidance for that agency’s officers. Such policy should include, at minimum, statements that officers will not continue pursuit once the risk of danger to the officer and public created by the pursuit exceeds the potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large. Also, officers assessing the danger must consider the nature of the violation committed by the offender, as well as environmental conditions such as type of area, weather, and level of traffic congestion. Further, based upon the characteristics of the particular agency, the area it encompasses, and the people it serves, CEOs may desire to restrict pursuit to cases in which the offender has been involved in serious offenses. Additionally, CEOs also must heed state statutes and state-level court decisions applicable within their jurisdiction. Finally, although civil lawsuits likely will continue to be filed, CEOs can protect their agencies by proactively reassessing their agency’s pursuit policy and providing adequate training regarding the policy and motor vehicle pursuit in general.

    This information came from an
    FBI online article.

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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