Police pursuits are definitely not anything new, but, rather the policies and directives have been revamped and changed over time in answer to the many non-felony police pursuits that have resulted in innocent citizens being caught in the middle thus leading to mortal injury. Through discussion of justice department policies and procedures along discussion relative to Title 42 Section 1983 has led to a great deal of large lawsuits and the sheer volume of exactly how many police pursuits that do end in tragic circumstances will be examined.
A non-felony misdemeanor is defined as “any non-felony crime which can include the following:
· Child abuse
· Disorderly intoxication
· Fraud and other white collar crime
· Theft involving property with a value of $500 or less (exceptions for shoplifting)
Punishment normally ranges for these types of crimes by a fine of up to $1,000, but could go as high as $5,000 and a conviction could result in the termination of your current employment and a potential loss of a person’s driver’s license.
Data going back to 1997 outlines the United States Department of Justice’s written policy directives which states that:
· Nearly all local police departments (93%) had a written policy on pursuit driving. Three-fifths restricted vehicle pursuits according to specific criteria such as speed or offense. About a fourth had a policy that left the decision to the officer’s discretion. Six percent discouraged all vehicle pursuis.
· Ninety-one percent of local police departments, employing 99% of all officers, had a written policy on the use of deadly force. Eighty-four percent, employing 96% of all officers, had a policy on the use of nonlethal force.
· About 5 in 6 departments, employing 96% of officers, had written policies on the handling of both domestic disputes and juveniles. About 3 in 5 departments, employing 75% of officers, had a discretionary arrest policy. (U.S. Department of Justice)
Title 42, Section 1983 Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights states that
“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States thereof to te deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceedings for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statue of the District of Columbia” (Lawyer)
Based on this type of statute that has been put in place, many police agencies both federal, state and local have needed to revampt their current pursuit rules. In 2003 the Assembly Committee on Public Safety (2003) directly addressed this problem and conducted a nationwide survey resulting in the following information that has been used in many cases to move forward and breaking off many high-speed pursuits in the best interest of the general public:
Twenty-three percent (98) of the responding agencies reported that no formal pursuit policy training was provided to their officers. Small agencies accounted for 62 of the responses and 24 were from medium agencies.
Should High-Speed Pursuits Be Limited? Several departments have established policies to limit the instances where high-speed chases can be initiated and when they should cease. Two years after implementing a new high-speed pursuit policy, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported a 37% decrease in the number of pursuits, no deaths, and a 42% decrease in the number of injuries in pursuit incidents.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department limited its police pursuits to serious crimes. In Yakima, Washington, high-speed chases are allowed only when an officer believes that the person being pursued has committed a serious felony involving an actual or threatened attack that could have or has resulted in death or serious bodily injury. The Florida Highway Patrol allows high-speed chases to apprehend a person suspected of a crime of violence, while prohibiting all other pursuits.
Los Angeles Police Department Pursuit Policy: In January 2003, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) revised its high-speed pursuit policy and prohibited high-speed pursuits where the initial contact was for a traffic infraction only. LAPD found its officers had engaged in more than 2,000 high-speed pursuits, resulting in 744 traffic collisions, 479 injuries and 9 deaths between 1999 and 2001. Further, LAPD found that 59% of those high-speed pursuits occurred in situations where the initial contact was for a traffic infraction only. The new policy continues to allow an officer to pursue a person suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suspected of committing a misdemeanor or felony.
Department of Justice (DOJ) Pursuit Policy: In situations where DOJ wants to make a non-felony traffic stop related to an active/open investigation or due to concerns for public safety, the DOJ agent will, whenever possible, request a marked police care to make the stop. If the agent makes the stop, he or she must be in a vehicle equipped with red lights and sirens.
DOJ defines a “pursuit” as an event involving one or more law enforcement officers attempting to apprehend a suspect operating a motor vehicle while the suspect is trying to avoid arrest by using high-speed driving or other evasive tactics. In deciding whether to initiate a pursuit or to continue a pursuit, DOJ agents must consider the following factors:
a) The seriousness of the offense;
b) Whether or not the identity of the offender has been established to the point that he or she could be arrested at a later date;
c) The safety of the public;
d) The safety of the officer;
e) The volume of traffic (vehicular and pedestrian);
f) The location and time of day;
h) Road and weather conditions;
i) Familiarity of the agent with the area of the pursuit;
j) Quality of radio communications;
aa) Whether or not the pursuing vehicle is capable of staying with or overtaking the suspect vehicle;
bb) Continually question whether the seriousness justifies continuing the pursuit; and,
cc) Whether the pursued vehicle’s location is no longer definitely known.
Criminal Penalties for Pursuits resulting in Death: Currently, the penalty for causing seriously bodily injury and death while attempting to evade a peace officer is an alternate misdemeanor/felony punishable by up to one year in county jail; three, four, or five years in state prison; and/or from $2,000 to $10,000 fine. As recently amended, his bill increases the mid-term and aggravated penalty to three, five, or seven years in state prison. As such, this bill makes a distinction between the resulting harm that occurs as a result of the pursuit. (Assembly Committee on Public Safety)
Based on many of the procedures that were revamped with respect to high-speed chases, there still is a definate problem that is occuring in which these chases are resulting in real tragedies.
For instance in Newark in April 4, 2007, the City of Newark was ordered to pay $3.6 million in compensatory damages to resolve a lawsuit in which three pedestrians wer not only injured but one was paralyzed as a result of police pursuing a stolen SUV. Only until two more police chases resulted in two different pedestrians losing their lives, did the Newark police department change its chase policy. (Overlawyered.com)
In California where the highest volume of high-speed chases occur, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2003, of California’s 7,171 high-speed pursuits caused 51 deaths and of those 51 deaths, 18 were innocent bystanders.
The Associated Press reports: “Los Angeles County adopted one of the nation’s most restrictive pursuit policies in 1998, limiting chases to instances where there has been a felony crime committed, a misdemeanor crime involving a weapon, or suspected drunken drivers who are an obvious road hazard. Before, deputies engaged in about 500 chases a year, a number that dropped by half since the policy was adopted, said Sgt. Wayne Bilowit, the department’s legislative advocate. The number increased in the last year with deputies now patrolling more jurisdictions, but the percentage of chases resulting in collisions has dropped to historic lows, and there have been no chase-related fatalities since 1998. Moreover, the policy has changed the culture of the department’s chase mentality, Bilowit said. Now, 40 percent of chases are halted even though they fall within department guidelines, and half those decisions are made by the pursuing deputy.” Despite these successes, Captain Scott Howland of the CA Highway Patrol advocates more stringent penalties for people who flee from the police instead of limited police immunity. (Blog)
High-speed police chases are not just a commonality inside L.A. County, but, is a large problem throughout the country. Another reported incident of high-speed fatality involved a case within the Atlanta Police Department. In this incident, the Clayton County police pulled over a joyriding juvenile, that while they were processing the teen’s driver’s license information came over the police band radio that the vehicle the teen was in was actually a stolen vehicle, the resulting chase the ensued lasted over four miles. But, instead of actually calling off the pursuit when it reached dangerous levels, as has been adopted by many police departments, the end result was the teenager losing control of the vehicle, crashed head on into several trees at the side of the road which resulted in two deaths and four serious injuries.
As with many non-felony car pursuits, many involve young individuals who, for no other reason, often flee when being questioned by police out of the primal instinct of fear. This leaves the conflicting question and burden on police that instead of pursuing potential criminals in a dangerous and oftentimes in a reckless manner, would it not be best to develop policies across the board that will weigh the public safety factor against obtaining a collar by the arresting officer(s). The price of the end result of these pursuits not only make victims of those involved primarily in the chase, but, moreso those innocent victims that lie in the path of the chase and will look forward to a life of immobility, duress, pain and suffering for many years to come; all at the cost of the taxpayer’s dollar. (McCranie)
It is estimated that today, on average, two persons die each day as a result of a police pursuit. Studies show that almost 40% of pursuits end in an accident and at least 10% cause personal injury and death. And pursuits become dangerous quickly with over 50% of the collisions occurring in the first two minutes of the chase and 70% occurring before the sixth minute. The Hartford Insurance Company found that a staggering 80% of those killed by high speed police pursuit were innocent bystanders. In one case, the driver was suspected of speeding and was noted to have been playing “loud music from the car.” (McCranie)
In the State of Georgia, under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6, the Legislature permits a victim of a high speed police chase to sue a government entity which recklessly disregards proper police procedure. Many experts have opined that such civil suits are the best deterrent that exists today to stop these dangerous practices. (McCranie)
High-speed pursuits have not provided enough constitutional evidence that they do in fact produce encouraging results, but, rather, produce the exact opposite as it is the innocent bystanders are the real victims in the entire scenario. As these staggering results continue to mount against the police departments, public pressure is put to the police department in each State to revamp their chase policies.
Assembly Committee on Public Safety. Government of California, Senate Department. 13 March 2004. 13 April 2007 ;http://info.sen.ca.gov/pub/03-04/bill/asm/ab_0101-0150/ab_140_cfa_20030328_102933_asm_comm.html;.
Blog, CrimProf. Criminal Justice Policy. 20 March 2005. 13 April 2007 ;http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/crimprof_blog/criminal_justice_policy/index.html;.
Lawyer, Atlanta Crime. Misdemeanor Crimes and Punishments. n.d. 12 April 2007 ;http://www.atlantacriminallawyer.com/resource/Misdemeanor.asp;.
McCranie, Finch, LLP. Another Atlanta Police Chase Case with Fatalities. 28 February 2007. 12 April 2007 ;http://www.georgiainjurylawyerblog.com/2007/02/another_police_chase_case_with.html;.
Overlawyered.com. Newark to pay $3.6M to settle lawsuit over police pursuit. 4 April 2007. 13 April 2007 ;http://www.newsday.com/news/local/wire/newjersey/ny-bc-nj-njo–pedestriansst0404apr>.
U.S. Department of Justice. Bureauof Justice Statistics Executive Summary, Local Police Departments. 1 January 1997. 12 April 2007 ;http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/lpd97ex.pdf;.
 March 20, 2005 “California legislators seek to reduce high-speed police chases”