Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Court: Police Have Qualified Immunity in High-Speed Chases
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Police officers who engage in high-speed pursuit are entitled to qualified immunity unless a plaintiff can prove that they acted with a deliberate intent to harm, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge James C. Mahan of the District of Nevada, who ruled that the standard for judging whether officers are entitled to immunity requires a factual inquiry whether they had a practical opportunity to deliberate before taking action.
The court held that Las Vegas Officer Eli Prunchak was entitled to qualified immunity for his role in a high-speed pursuit that injured non-participants because the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that he had intended to harm suspects in the chase.
Edwige Bingue and her mother Marjorie Bingue filed suit against Prunchak in Nevada state court alleging state law negligence and violations of their federal constitutional rights after he collided with their vehicle while participating in the high-speed pursuit of another vehicle on Nov. 29, 2003. The pursuit occurred when officers of the department attempted to pull over a stolen vehicle whose driver refused to stop.
The driver led police on a chase involving at least a dozen units and a helicopter that ultimately lasted over an hour and covered nearly 90 miles. Police eventually stopped the fleeing vehicle with spike strips a few miles from the California state line and arrested its three occupants.
Prunchak, hearing radio traffic that led him to believe that he was close enough that he could catch up to the fleeing vehicle and assist other officers in apprehending the suspects, joined the chase, which by that time had proceeded onto U.S. 95. Minutes behind the fleeing vehicle and the other pursuers, Prunchak was rounding a curve on the highway at a high rate of speed when he lost control and sideswiped the Bingues.
The case was removed to federal court, where Prunchak claimed he was entitled to qualified immunity and moved for partial summary judgment. However, Mahan denied the motion, finding that the issue of the standard to apply to determine whether a substantive due process violation had taken place—“intent to harm” or “deliberate indifference”—was a fact based inquiry that looked at whether deliberation by Prunchak would have been practical.
He also found that the Bingues had demonstrated substantial questions of material facts as to whether Prunchak had an opportunity to deliberate.
However, writing for the court on Prunchak’s interlocutory appeal, Judge Jay S. Bybee swept aside the Bingues’ argument that their status as bystanders entitled them to a greater duty of care from Prunchak than the “intent to harm” standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme court in County of Sacramento v. Lewis (1998) 523 U.S. 833, noting that the Ninth Circuit had previously rejected such a distinction in Onossian v. Black (1999) 175 F.3d 1169.
He similarly rejected the Bingues’ argument that Lewis’ “intent to harm” standard should be restricted to cases involving “emergency and nearly instantaneous pursuits,” where the police “have obligations that tend to tug against each other” and must make decisions “in haste, under pressure, and frequently without the luxury of a second chance.”
“The sheer velocity of a high-speed chase necessarily converts each situation into a genuine ‘emergency,’” Bybee wrote. “Trying to sort high-speed chases into the neat categories of ‘emergency’ and ‘non-emergency; situations is much like trying to bake a cake and having to distinguish between salt and sugar by sight alone: it is a nearly impossible task that has a high likelihood of producing an unpleasant result.”
Applying the “intent to harm” standard, Bybee then concluded that Prunchak was entitled to qualified immunity and dismissal of the action because the Bingues could not show that he had such intent.
“Prunchak joined the high-speed chase in an attempt to do his job and help apprehend the fleeing suspect who posed a danger to the community…,” he wrote. “With the benefit of hindsight, Prunchak’s decision to join the pursuit may have been ill-advised and his execution may have been careless, but we cannot say that, from the moment Prunchak heard the call over the radio, he did not believe he was responding to an emergency and acted accordingly; poor judgment alone in a high-speed chase does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Bybee was joined in his opinion by Judges Milan D. Smith Jr. and N. Randy Smith.
The case is Bingue v. Prunchak, No. 05-16388.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company