By:  LINDSEY O'NEILL, ESQ.

With a high speed chase, you might only hear those police sirens for a few seconds before the cars come whizzing by you on the street.  Sometimes, maybe not even long even to property move over to the curb - or at least get partially out of the way!  Too often, however, those high speed police chases cause accidents and injure the innocent drivers on the road.   The courts were then faced with having to decide whether, or to what extent, a police officer could be liable to an injured driver for causing an accident as a result of a high speed chase.  I mean, if regular drivers who speed through the streets and intersections cause and accident, they're liable to those they've injured.  Why shouldn't the police be liable for causing the same accident?

Well, it's not that simple I guess.  They're in the "line of duty," driving "authorized emergency vehicles," and pursuing criminals.  State laws even provide for a limitation of liability.  For example, California Vehicle Code Section 17004 states the following:

"A public employee is not liable for civil damages on account of personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the operation, in the line of duty, of an authorized emergency vehicle while responding to an emergency call or when in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not upon returning from a fire alarm or other emergency call."

By enacting these kinds of liability-limiting laws for police and other emergency vehicles, "we the people" have decided that the interests of justice are served by granting the police "immunity" from prosecution for injuries that may occur during pursuing fleeing suspects.  Many of those suspects who flee have just committed serious crimes - car jacking, murder, robbery... but sometimes police conduct high speed pursuits over less serious offenses.  If the police were prohibited from speeding to chase after them.... the suspects would simply just get away.

But the line has to be drawn somewhere.   Some might argue that all high speed chases endanger the innocent other drivers on the road - that the police act in "reckless disregard" for the safety of the public on the roadway when they conduct a high speed chase.  Even further, sometimes the way in which a high speed police car pursuit is conducted actually "shocks the conscience" of the community.  For instance, would a high speed chase in excess of 100 mph along neighborhood streets in front of an elementary school be okay in pursuit of a minor traffic offender? If a 6-year old girl was killed by the police car while she crossed the street to go home... well, we might then look at that high speed chase and determine that it not only was in "reckless disregard for public safety," but that it does in fact "shock the conscience."

The courts have struggled over the years with what should be the standard for determining if a high speed chase was dangerous enough to hold law enforcement liable for violating our constitutional due process rights in connection with injuries sustained from such high speed chase.   Should it be a police pursuit that is simply "reckless"... or should it be only if a high speed chase is so reckless that there is a "conscious, knowing disregard for human life and safety"... or should it be the even higher standard of only when a high speed pursuit under the circumstances actually downright "shocks our conscience."   Conduct that "shocks the conscience" is conduct that is "deliberately intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest."  The "shock the conscience" standard is currently in use by the courts.  

The issue is incredibly important from a policy perspective because if the standard for constitutional liability is very high, then law enforcement will rarely be found liable.  If the standard is lower, more liability will be found, which will result in fewer apprehensions of criminals.

If you're interested, you can read some of the court cases on this topic below: 

U.S. Supreme Court - COUNTY OF SACRAMENTO, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. TERI LEWIS AND THOMAS LEWIS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF PHILIP LEWIS, DECEASED, May 26, 1998.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals - Noni ONOSSIAN; Cyril Onossian; Herve Onossian, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Sherman BLOCK; Michael Antonovich; Deane Dana; Ed
Edelman; Kenneth Hahn; Gloria Molina; County of Los Angeles; Daniel Finn; Larry Yates; Bruce Thomas, & One Hundred Unknown Named Employees & or Officials of County of Los Angeles, Defendants-Appellees, May 26, 1999
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