LOS ANGELES (U-Wire) — Last week, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Torres vs. Bonilla, regarding police liability in high-speed pursuits.
The Court of Appeals refused to allow the case to proceed to trial, citing a 1998 Supreme Court decision preventing people from suing the police under federal civil rights law. California state law also gives law enforcement agents immunity from litigation concerning police chases.
In 1994, Gabriel Torres was struck by a vehicle the police were chasing at speeds of up to 130 mph on the Ventura Freeway. He was blinded in one eye and had to have metal plates put in his head.
Society demands that our law enforcement officials maintain law and order as well as bring fugitive criminals to justice. However, certain restrictions are placed upon them, ensuring that the democratic principle of due process of law is maintained. A police force that is free to do as it pleases is one of the defining features of a totalitarian regime.
Criminal suspects must be made aware of their Miranda rights and are supposed to remain free from police abuse. No one may be stopped by a law enforcement officer unless a “probable cause” exists that the person in question has done something wrong in the eyes of the law. Evidence may not be seized or confiscated from anyone unless there is a warrant signed by a judge that specifies what is to be taken and why.
Unfortunately, there are no uniform guidelines or restrictions placed on police governing how to handle high-speed pursuits. As such, the police are able to operate a chase as they see fit. It is this freedom that has caused people to be injured and killed because of high-speed police chases.
A National Transportation Safety Board study showed that more than 300 people per year are killed because of injuries resulting from police pursuits. How many people must die before something is done to prevent this needless loss of life?
It has been shown time and again that legislation the people bring about is required to affect any major change in police procedure. The angry will of the people dictates how far they are willing to allow their police force to go in protecting them.
Obviously, law enforcement agents need to be allowed to pursue suspects who they believe pose a danger to the community. However, by engaging in a high-speed pursuit, they should be aware that they have made a conscious decision to accept the responsibility for the outcome of the chase. By rejecting Torres’ appeal, the Supreme Court has effectively shut the door on the right of innocent victims to collect damages.
Because of the direct involvement of the police and their decision to engage in ahigh-speed pursuit, both they and the suspect should be held liable for compensatorydamages, which are the actual medical and property damages. However, punitive — or additional monetary damages designed as punishment — should not be levied against the police, since they are attempting to secure the public safety.
As stated by the Court of Appeals, the police do need to have the freedom to pursue criminals. However, this should not give them blanket authority to engage in a high-speed chase whenever and as often as they see fit. Nor should it afford them any special protection from the responsibilities that they have in the pursuit, which, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, is “to protect and serve.”
Innocent bystanders need to be protected from fleeing criminals. Everyone is supposed to be responsible for their own actions. The police are not above the law and should be held liable for actions which are dangerous to the general public, such as high-speed chases.
Tory Toyama’s column originally appeared in November 23rd’s University of Southern California paper, the Daily Trojan.