Monday, May 12, 2008
Court: Officers Not Liable for Releasing Drunk Driver’s Car
Justices Say Police Had No Duty to Protect Other Motorists by Impounding Vehicle
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Police officers who arrested a man for driving both under the influence and with a suspended license, and who then returned the man’s vehicle to him later that day when they released him rather than impounding it, cannot be held liable for the man’s fatal collision with another motorist that evening, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Holding that Vehicle Code Sec. 14602.6(a)(1)’s provision that law enforcement officers “may” impound the vehicle of an individual arrested for driving with a suspended license for 30 days creates a discretionary, rather than mandatory duty, the court ruled that Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang erred when she denied the California Highway Patrol’s motion for summary judgment in a wrongful death action by the family of the deceased motorist.
The family of Jerry Walker brought the action against the department after Scott St. Pierre collided with Walker’s vehicle on the evening of March 17, 2004, causing Walker’s death.
Two officers responding to a non-injury car accident had arrested St. Pierre that morning for driving under the influence of prescription drugs after he appeared intoxicated and failed a series of field sobriety tests. After taking St. Pierre into custody, one of the officers prepared a vehicle report form indicating that St. Pierre’s vehicle would be “stored,” rather than “impounded” or “released.”
While en route to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the other officer checked St. Pierre’s license and discovered it was suspended, so he booked St. Pierre both for driving under the influence and for driving with a suspended license when they arrived. In his arrest report, the officer similarly marked St. Pierre’s car as “stored.”
Deputies released St. Pierre from jail later that day at 6:30 pm, and his mother retrieved the car from a towing company.
However, approximately three hours after his release, St. Pierre was involved in a second auto collision, causing Walker’s death.
Walker’s wife and son sued the Highway Patrol under Government Code Sec. 815.6, which imposes liability for breach of a mandatory duty, alleging that Vehicle Code Sec. 14602.6(a)(1) imposed such a duty to impound St. Pierre’s vehicle for 30 days, and that Walker’s death resulted from the officers’ breach of that duty.
Sec. 14602.6(a)(1) provides that “[w]henever a peace officer determines that a person was driving a vehicle while his or her driving privilege was suspended…the peace officer may either immediately arrest that person and cause the removal and seizure of that vehicle or, if the vehicle is involved in a traffic collision, cause the removal and seizure of the vehicle without the necessity of arresting the person…. A vehicle so impounded shall be impounded for 30 days.”
The department moved for summary judgment, arguing that the statute created only a discretionary duty, but Chang denied the motion, interpreting the statute’s language to require law enforcement officers to either arrest a driver found driving without a suspended license and impound the vehicle, or to simply impound the vehicle.
The CHP then sought a writ of mandate ordering Chang to reverse her order, and the Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Rodney Davis, granted the department’s request.
Examining the statute’s language, he pointed out that the Vehicle Code defines the term “may” as being permissive, and as conferring discretionary, rather than mandatory authority on law enforcement officers.
Davis noted that Chang had focused on the phrase “may either” to reach her conclusion, but rejected this interpretation, writing that “[t]he phrase ‘may either’ does no more than apply the ‘may’ to both of the succeeding clauses.”
“[Sec.] 14602.6(a)(1), in effect, says only that an officer ‘may…immediately arrest th[e] person and cause the removal and seizure of th[e] vehicle or…[may] cause the removal and seizure of the vehicle without the necessity of arresting the person…’”
Davis further concluded that this interpretation was supported by the legislative history of the statute, its context and public policy, and he concluded that the Highway Patrol could not be held to have failed to perform a public duty.
“[S]uch a requirement would be administratively burdensome in cases where, as here, a police officer initially arrests an individual for a different charge permitting removal of the vehicle, but subsequently also arrests that individual for driving with a suspended license,” he wrote. “Requiring the officer to then amend the vehicle report, call the towing company to notify it of the new authority to impound the vehicle, and change the impoundment period to a mandatory 30 days seems unduly onerous and administratively inefficient.”
Justices Coleman Blease and Ronald B. Robie joined Davis in his opinion.
The case is California Highway Patrol v. Superior Court (Walker), 08 S.O.S. 2747.
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