Law enforcement often has to perform a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, protection of the public and upholding of basic fundamental rights is crucial to our system of justice. On the other hand, in order to function as a nation, certain entities need to be able to conduct their business even if it puts others in danger.
Nowhere does that conflict come into play more than in the area of police chases. Obviously, police need to be able to do their jobs, and their jobs often entail chasing after people who are evading their custody. The people who are running away have often committed dangerous or violent crimes or are a risk of causing danger to the public in the future. We plainly cannot prohibit police from chasing after people who flee.
On the other hand, police chases often occur on public roads or in residential areas. The combination of what can be multiple vehicles going at high speeds in these areas can be deadly. That is especially true when chases go off the road, or onto the wrong side of the roads, or they involve blockades or other on-road obstruction tactics. That means that police freedom to do what they need to do must have some limitations in order to protect the public.
Accidents in Police Chases
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that about 250,000 high speed police chases occur nationally every year. About 6,000-8,000 result in a collision, killing around 500 people and injuring about 5,000.
In the 80s, the California Highway Patrol, trying to determine the effectiveness and necessity of high speed chases, found that 70% of chases ended with no accidents and resulted in 77% of suspects being caught, which would seem to lend credibility to the argument that police chases are necessary.
Still, many chases are after a traffic violation or something that is only a suspicion of wrongdoing—hardly serious enough to warrant even smaller fatalities that can come from police chases.
Holding Law Enforcement Liable for Injuries
There are generally two avenues to recover damages against police agencies when high speed pursuits end up in injuries to innocents. The first is, like any suit, simple negligence.
The problem is the same that we have previously discussed in relation to other government actors—sovereign immunity. Police are state agencies and actors. Thus, they are immune from liability except as permitted by Florida’s sovereign immunity laws.
Even if they are able to be sued under sovereign immunity, that statute limits damages to victims to $200,000 per claim, or $300,000 per lawsuit (when there are multiple injured parties).
Victims can sue under what is known as “Section 1983,” a federal statute that provides a private right of action to citizens whose civil rights are violated by government agencies. However, liability under that statute requires more than simple negligence. An injured party must show that the police acted recklessly in their pursuit, or with actions that would “shock the conscience.”
When can Police Engage in a Chase?
Generally, police agencies are free to set their own policies on when to pursue suspects and when not to. Some will limit the ability to pursue based upon what the person being chased is suspected of doing. Others will make case-by-case decisions based on the area, the weather conditions, or traffic conditions.
The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) manual provides guidelines for when and how a police chase can occur, and it is possible to find FHP liable for negligence for police chase injuries where they fail to follow their own guidelines.
The FHP manual only allows pursuits when a felony has been committed, where there is a suspected DUI, or a suspected reckless driving violation. Motorcycles can only be pursued in the case when a forcible felony is suspected.
All pursuing FHP vehicles must use their emergency flashers and light and cannot exceed 15mph above the speed limit unless there is an immediate threat, the officer’s immediate presence is needed, or “circumstances allow” the higher speed.
These guidelines only apply to FHP. Other police or emergency vehicles are only limited by their own policies, which may vary, and Florida law, which is somewhat vague and open on the topic.
Florida law allows emergency vehicles to disregard the rules of the road when attending to an actual emergency. The law says that emergency vehicles must “slow down as may be necessary for safe operation” at red lights and stop signs, and disregard regulations and speed limits so long as doing so does not “endanger life or property.”
The law does plainly say that the allowances for emergency vehicles do not “protect the driver from the consequences of his or her reckless disregard for the safety of others.”
This would at least appear to be some admission that liability can lie when emergency vehicles do not take into account many of the items that FHP notes in its manual. These include things like taking into account how busy the roadway is, weather conditions, and the potential danger to allowing the suspect to get away vs. the risk of injuring innocents by continuing with the high speed pursuit.
Causation Disputes May Occur in an Injury Trial
One practical problem that victims injured in a police chase may face is causation. In many cases, law enforcement agencies will argue that the victim’s injuries were not caused by their officers, but rather by the perpetrator or suspect that they were chasing. This can be a persuasive argument to a jury that may see the fleeing car as the “bad guy” and law enforcement as the “good guy.”
This is why police chase cases can be difficult, but when officers engage in clearly reckless behavior, a victim can still hold the agency liable. Things like ramming other cars at high speeds, pursuing those who have engaged in low level crimes, or shooting at moving vehicles, can all be considered reckless enough to find liability.
Injuries caused by government actor, including car accidents, present a unique set of legal issues. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation if you are injured in an automobile accident involving any government agency.