Many police departments, including Arizona’s own Phoenix Police Department, are instituting policies which limit officers’ ability to give chase to fleeing vehicles, much to the chagrin of the makers of “World’s Most Dangerous Police Chases 8.” Not only does this impact the high speed chase to the Mexican border you were planning in the Spring, but it could affect liability if you are involved in an accident resulting from police pursuit.
In the past, police enforcement policies were often influenced by the concept of governmental immunity. In short form, this basically means that individuals cannot bring suit against the government in certain circumstances. Unfortunately for police stations, immunity from third parties harmed in police chases no longer exists in most states, including Arizona. Ryan v. State, 134 656 P.2d 597 (1982).
According to Arizona statute, officers are authorized to take certain actions in pursuit of a fleeing vehicle, including running red lights or exceeding speed limits. A.R.S.A. § 28-624. However, none of the traffic exceptions are absolute. For example, a squad car running a red light must display its lights and siren and slow down as necessary. An officer exceeding the speed limit may only do so with light and siren switched on and only if his or her speed does not endanger life or property. On top of all these exceptions, police officers still have a “duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons,” and the statute “does not protect the [officer] from the consequences of [his or her] reckless disregard for the safety of others. A.R.S.A. § 28-624(D). Basically, an officer can be found liable for causing an accident during pursuit if he was grossly negligent, or in other words, his conduct was willful and wanton. Estate of Aten v. City of Tuscon, 817 P.2d 951, 960 (App.1991). To be considered willful and wanton, the officer’s actions must “have been committed with actual or deliberate intention to harm or with an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.” Id. at 958.
Not only can police be held liable for accidents between a squad car and a third party, but also accidents between a third party and the suspect who the grossly negligent police officer is chasing. Id. at 955. The basic idea is that an officer is spurring on reckless driving by giving chase. And in that case, he can be grossly negligent by missing opportunities to stop the chase earlier or by choosing to continue pursuit that will endanger third parties.
In order to protect themselves from liability, many police departments institute policies explaining when officers may give chase. For example, Phoenix only authorizes hot pursuit in the event that the person being pursued is suspected of a violent felony. Scottsdale Police Department authorizes giving chase if the fleeing suspect is believed to have committed a dangerous felony or if there is an immediate and articulable threat to human life. And in those cases, officers are still held to the same standard of care outlined by Arizona statute and case law.
Unfortunately, it looks like we might have to wait even longer for “World’s Most Dangerous Police Chases 9.”