High Speed Police Pursuits

While the nation’s attention has recently been focused on the problem of police shootings, a similar, more lethal police practice has been largely ignored. The chance of an innocent bystander dying in a high speed police pursuit is staggering. USA TODAY determined that the death toll of innocent bystanders killed in police chases from 2004 through 2013, including children and the elderly, could be as high as 2,750. Nationwide, police chases may have injured 7,400 people a year — more than 270,000 people since 1979.

Police pursuits kill more people each year than floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and lightning combined. A study done by BMJ Publishing Group Ltd., showed there were 2,654 fatal crashes from 1994 to 2002 in which 1,088 innocent people died who were not in the fleeing vehicle. One-third of all high-speed police pursuits nationwide resulted in the death of an innocent bystander.

To make matters worse for innocent bystanders in California, those whose lives have been devastated from often needless police pursuits, Vehicle Code § 17004.7 provides immunity from liability to police departments for injuries or deaths caused by police pursuits if the departments have a written policy on vehicular pursuits.

Everyone agrees police should pursue a fleeing murder suspect or kidnapper. However, statistics paint a much more alarming picture of when police engage in high speed pursuits. California records of 63,500 chases from 2002 through 2014 show that:

  • More than 89% were for vehicle-code violations, including speeding, vehicle theft, reckless driving, and 4,898 instances of a missing license plate or an expired registration
  • Just 5% were an attempt to nab someone suspected of a violent crime, usually assault or robbery; 168 sought a known murder suspect
  • Nearly 1,000 were for safety violations that endangered a driver only, including 850 drivers not wearing a seat belt, and 23 motorcycle riders not wearing a helmet
  • In 90 instances, the police chased someone for driving too slowly.

A recent California Court of Appeal case, Morgan v. Beaumont Police Department (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 144, provided some relief to a widow and daughter of an innocent bystander killed when his vehicle was struck head-on by a suspect being chased by police at speeds of over 90 mph. The Court made clear that to have immunity, police must not only have a written policy on vehicular pursuits, but the policy must also be “received, read and understood” by peace officers for there to be immunity.

At the offices of Kerr & Sheldon, A Professional Law Corporation, we have represented personal injury victims throughout Southern California since 1979. Because of our reputation for successful and aggressive advocacy, a large portion of our clients are referred by other lawyers, doctors, chiropractors, and former clients. Contact us for a free case evaluation.