It wasn’t just a victory for Deputy James Smith, but for police officers nationwide, when the U.S. Supreme Court recently made it more difficult to sue a police officer for damages stemming from a high-speed chase that results in injuries or even death.
In 1990, Deputy James Smith pursued a motorcycle after witnessing several traffic violations. As the 18-year old driver of the motorcycle, Brian Willard, continues at high speeds with 16-year old Phillip Lewis as his passenger, Smith followed with his lights and sirens on. Instead of pulling over, Willard continued with speeds exceeding 100 mph, and did not stop until the motorcycle tipped over. Smith then slammed on the brakes, but the car skidded into Lewis, causing massive injuries and his death.
The parents of Phillip Lewis sued Deputy Smith stating that the high-speed police pursuits are deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person’s right to life and personal security. However, in the precedence setting decision on May 26, 1998, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that a police officer does not violate substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a high speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender. Justice David Souter explained, “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 a due process violation.” (1) In other words, unless the officer acted with improper or malicious intent during the pursuit, he is not liable for death or injuries caused.
Although this particular case has been settled, the controversy of pursuit driving is still an issue police officers must face. The public is being bombarded with news clops and television specials highlighting police vehicle pursuits that end in devastating crashes. Statistics of hundreds of deaths resulting from such pursuits float around. What are the real effects of pursuit driving? And on the other hand, what would the consequence be if law enforcement were restricted from pursuit driving incidents? What are alternatives to high-speed chases? What can we do to make them safer?
In a combined effort with Idaho POST and A.L.E.R.T., the entire Issue #8 of The Backup, will concentrate on pursuit driving issues. In Issue #8, we will have the latest updates on court rulings, video footage and informative articles.
(1) See Legal Information Institute. County of Sacramento ET AL. v. Lewis (United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit).