Wednesday, December 16, 2009
C.A.: Police Who Turned Off Lights ‘In Pursuit’
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal has rejected a motorcyclist’s claim that he could not have been trying to evade police during a high-speed chase through San Luis Obispo County because the pursuing officer deactivated his emergency lights while briefly losing the trail.
Labeling the chase “but one pursuit,” Div. Six said Monday Steven Allen Copass’ subsequent turn across oncoming traffic supported a finding of “willful or wanton disregard” for public safety, especially because Copass was speeding and driving without a license after a third drunk driving conviction.
Copass fled in 2008 after being stopped near the Whitly Gardens area of Highway 46, east of Paso Robles, by a California Highway Patrol officer working in tandem with another officer in a surveillance airplane. The highway is a designated “safety corridor” due to the many roadway accidents and traffic deaths occurring there.
An officer directed Copass to stop after receiving a radar reading of 91 mph, and Copass initially slowed and drove to the shoulder. But, the officer said, Copass then “just took off…at a rapid acceleration” without signaling.
The officer gave chase with emergency lights activated at speeds exceeding 100 mph, but lost sight of Copass when the highway dropped toward a river. He deactivated his lights as he drove and looked for the motorcycle along side roads, but told his partner flying above that he was “still actively looking and in fresh pursuit.”
Within five minutes, his partner saw Copass, and the officer drove to intercept. However, he did not immediately activate his lights and siren when he saw Copass, saying later he intended to “get on top of [Copass’] vehicle and have a better chance of him not ditching me again.”
Copass suddenly turned right onto the highway, forcing an oncoming vehicle out of its lane to avoid a collision, a move the airborne officer described as a failure to yield to oncoming traffic. The officer on the ground reactivated his lights and sirens, and during a 90-mph chase, officers saw Copass turn left across a double-yellow line with limited visibility of oncoming traffic.
The motorcyclist dismounted and surrendered after the pursuing officer was able to turn his patrol car in front of the motorcycle, blocking its path. The officer then discovered Copass’ driver’s license had been revoked following a third conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol.
A jury convicted Copass of evading a police officer with a willful disregard for the safety of others and driving with a suspended or revoked license, with findings that he served two prior prison terms. San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Ginger E. Garrett sentenced him to three years in prison.
On appeal, Copass argued that his failure to yield to oncoming traffic when he made the first unsafe turn did not support a finding of “willful or wanton disregard” under Vehicle Code Sec. 2800.2(a) because the officer was not “in pursuit” at the time and his patrol car was not displaying emergency lights.
The section defines such disregard as committing three or more traffic violations assigned a traffic violation point pursuant to Sec. 12810. It also incorporates and expressly requires a violation of Sec. 2800.1, prohibiting flight when a police vehicle utilizes emergency lights and sirens.
But Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert said the pursuit remained ongoing, and that the circumstances showed Copass was aware he was being pursued, “[t]he obvious purpose of the light and sound requirements.”
Gilbert further said that any error was harmless because the statute required evidence of just three Vehicle Code violations carrying at least one point and the prosecution had relied on four, including driving in excess of 55 mph, unsafe turning and driving without a valid license.
“[I]t is not reasonably probable that Copass would have received a more favorable result absent evidence of the unsafe turn into oncoming traffic,” the justice wrote.
Justices Kenneth R. Yegan and Steven Z. Perren joined Gilbert in his opinion.
The case is People v. Copass, 09 S.O.S. 7030.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company