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Police Liability Issues and High Speed Pursuits Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021


High speed pursuits are a controversial issue in the United States as sometimes police actions result in injury or death of passengers. The United States courts have various laws which define liability for law enforcement officers. This paper analyzes the concept of liability for police during high speed chases.


The last decade has witnessed discussion and reports exposure on police detections. These discussions have assorted from the issue of the police pursuit of any vehicle for any particular reason to pursuits that are not carried out which will give the reason to the illegal constituent to escape in a car as a positive technique to flee from fearfulness and hesitation. It is important to research on wide range court verdicts that is related to pursuits. Many of the pursuits have a disastrous end and have effected the rule and regulations enforcement organizations. Many police officers hold the opinion that a complete prohibition on pursuits would be disadvantageous and unfavorable to the society as a whole. Although proper training and better strategies should be used in the case of police pursuit. But the organization should be responsible for evaluation of all pursuits. Police officers are required to have the knowledge that their accomplishments which may have ended positively or negatively will be evaluated by the running administration in every case and not when something goes wrong. This will enable to perform a pursuit with a cautious state of mind. It is also essential to talk about and come to the conclusion how court decisions have implemented rules and regulations on police pursuits. It is also important to know how these bylaws effect police organizations and the individual police officer.

Court Decisions

There have been several cases which involved police vehicle pursuits. The court has taken various measures regarding authorized susceptibility of police officers, the Fourth Amendment safety and security and the subjective behavior by the police. These measured have been effective in controlling the unauthorized policies and tactics used by them. Some of the decisions taken by the court are sensible while some are senseless. For example, in one case, the claimant deceased was on the motorcycle which declined to pull over when an assistant sheriff indicated its driver to so. A second deputy sheriff was in a high speed pursuit and collided with the motorcycle after it inclined at an angle and fell which resulted in the death of the passenger. The U.S. Supreme Court had passed the verdict that the police officer has not defied essential principles applied the Supreme Court because of the 14th Amendment to the constitution of U.S by causing death through premeditated or uncontrolled unresponsiveness to life in a high speed vehicle chase intended at arresting the alleged lawbreaker (Alpert, 2006).

The U.S Supreme Court passed the judgment calling the accusation for the incident on the driver’s anarchic and extreme behavior in making an effort to escape from the pursuit. It also discarded the disagreement that the accusation was governed by the Fourth Amendment security in opposition to unfair search and seizure. The Court also cleared that the officer did not intentionally searched for a reason to conclude the plaintiff’s liberty of motion. Another case was of the deceased who had been driving a stolen car at high speeds in order to flee from the police vehicles that were chasing him. During the high speed pursuit, he was killed when his car collided into the police roadblock. In order to stop the deceased, the police had placed an 18 wheel truck transversely in the lane of the chased vehicle, behind the curve, with the police car headlights intended in such a way that blinded the pursued driver as he move towards it. The lower courts passed the verdict, declaring that the roadblock was irrational. When the case was taken to the U.S Supreme Court, the decision was made that the government had the authority to take action against the individual to stop their movement. The measures taken by the police in this case represented lethal force which was not necessary under the situation.

A central court effectively held that the preliminary incentive of the officers in seeking to stop the driver, even if questionably inappropriate and unacceptable, is not enough, remaining single-handedly, to make them legally responsible for damages rising from the motorist’s choice to disobey the law to pull over and in its place fled. The authorized immunity examination involved whether the officers were permitted to such immunity for their pursuit of the motorist after he declined to stop (Alvord, 2006).

The appeals court prominent in Sacramento versus Lewis, the U.S Supreme Court asserted that in the high speed chased aimed at catching the alleged lawbreaker, only a reason to instigate harm not linked to the genuine purpose of arrest will suit the element of capricious action outrageous to the principles and ethics. In Graves versus Thomas, the court ruled that in spite of police officer’s slanted motivation in attempting a traffic stop of a teenage driver, his choice to make the stop and to fit into the high speed pursuit when the driver declined to pull over and sped off, did not shock the ethics and principles. There was no proof that the officer had the intentions to harm the driver. The police officer, police chief and town were not responsible for the driver’s death when he lost control of his car during the pursuit. Any officer who shoots at a car containing a suspect is not liable for death of the passengers because the cause of the death was the suspect’s decision to flee and not because of the use of deadly force by the police officer (Beckman, 2005).

A suspect can be shot if the officer believed that the suspect was trying to kill him. Some lawsuits are filed in courts because they seek to assert claims for wrongful death or injuries based on arguments with officers during vehicular pursuits. The standard required to establish liability varies from state to state in the United States of America. In many instances it involves the scope of various immunities available under the law of a particular jurisdiction. Liability to be established requires if police have complied with requirements like activating warning lights or sirens. Inside the Federal Courts, the court sides with the law enforcement agencies. Police officers chasing a fleeing vehicle do not create any liability. If officers perform any action other than signaling the offender to pull over, they can incur liability. It is not allowed for officers to set up roadblocks or to ram the fleeing vehicle at high speed.

In 1990, Sacramento police officer Murray Stapp flipped on his overhead lights and yelled to two boys who rode by the scene of an altercation on a motorcycle. Sheriff’s Deputy James Smith, whose windows were up, could not hear what Officer Stapp said. Motorcylist Brian Willard and his passenger, Philip Lewis, both riding without helmets, squeezed between the officers’ cars and drove off. A high-speed pursuit ensued, which ended tragically with Smith’s car striking and killing Lewis. Currently a debate rages in the U.S. federal circuits regarding the appropriate standard of liability for police officers in high speed pursuit cases. The Ninth Circuit, which applied a deliberate indifference standard in Lewis v. Sacramento County, chose not to follow the shocks the conscience standard apparently established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rochin v. California2 and reaffirmed in Collins v. City of Harker Heights (Hill, 2006).

The remaining circuits have established a broad range of positions on the standard of conduct that will subject an officer engaged in a high-speed pursuit to liability for violating a victim’s due process rights. Passed in the wake of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, later codified at 42 U.S.C. 1983, sought to guarantee consistent and fair compensation for state citizens denied their constitutional guarantees by the acts of their own state officials. Section 1983 subjects every person acting under color of any statute, ordinance regulation, custom, or usage of any state to liability for depriving a citizen of that state of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws. In 1961, in Monroe v. Pape, the Supreme Court stated that Section 1983 should be read against the background of tort liability that makes a man responsible for the natural consequences of his actions.

The often shallow pockets of individual officers, however, led many plaintiffs to assert claims against the municipalities that employed the officers. The Court in Monroe refused to include municipalities in the definition of persons subject to Section 1983, a determination expressly overturned in 1978 by Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, which held that municipal liability arose only when officials’ execution of a government policy or custom inflicted the injury to the victim who could not recover under a respondent superior theory. The difficulty of proving that a government custom has caused an isolated accident in a random police pursuit has forced plaintiffs to pursue individual liability against the pursuing officers. High-speed pursuits inherently involve action taken by officers under the color of state law to enforce the laws of their state or municipality. The establishment of a deprivation of a federal constitutional right has proved more troublesome, however. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court determined that government officials are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known (Johns, 2006).

A plaintiff may have to demonstrate a substantial correspondence between the conduct in question and prior law allegedly establishing that the defendant’s actions were clearly prohibited. With the dispute in the circuits and the lack of clarity from the Court on what level of behavior violates a police pursuit victim’s constitutional rights, a qualified immunity defense offers a safe haven to most officers who argue that the rights they have allegedly violated are not clearly established. Often, then, if no clearly established right is shown, an officer may obtain a dismissal on a motion for summary judgment or for failure to state a claim. A standard of deliberate indifference in Section 1983 litigation has been applied predominately in several contexts outside the high-speed police pursuit context. Courts have also employed this standard when assessing claims against municipalities for inadequate police officer training. Only within the last decade or so has the deliberate indifference or reckless disregard standard been applied to high-speed police pursuits. While the deliberate indifference standard has less well-defined origins than the shocks the conscience standard, it presents a stark and practical alternative. Medina v. City and County of Denver, a 10th Circuit decision, has been credited as an influential opinion applying a deliberate indifference standard to a police pursuit cases (Peak, 2007).

The Medina court reasoned that the Constitution guarantees due process protection only from deliberate deprivations of life, liberty or property by a government official. Victims have to demonstrate that the officer’s conduct was directed toward them. But, the court added, a defendant’s reckless conduct may be considered directed toward plaintiffs if they are closely and immediately tied to the perceived substantial risk. Therefore, an officer’s decision to initiate and continue a high-speed pursuit, if not reasonable under the circumstances, could lead to Section 1983 liability.

While the shocks the conscience standard conceivably could reduce the number of Section 1983 claims, in theory and in practice, the standard remains unworkable for several reasons. Theoretically, the standard suffers from a serious identity crisis, having already disappeared from use in its original setting-evidence exclusion cases. It also has a lack of judicial certainty about the correctness of its application, not only in generic Section 1983 claims, but especially for those arising from tragic police pursuits. Police pursuit cases are not fundamentally different from those involving injuries sustained while in police custody, in which a deliberate indifference standard is applied (Nelson, 2007).

While persons in police custody are susceptible to government abuses of power, an injured motorist, pedestrian or innocent passenger in a fleeing vehicle suffers a similar vulnerability to a police officer’s unique state-sanctioned authority to initiate and sustain pursuits.


Police officers out on the street have a different view as compared with the news media. They are men and women who are involved in pursuing the suspects in question. They also include administrators and supervisors who have to deal with the aftermath of tragic pursuits. The thoughts of the group are usually that pursuits cannot be eliminated but can be controlled and supervised. They reject the concept of banning police pursuits because they are being forced to abandon part of their duty to arrest law breakers. The police officer tries to enforce their authority to enforce laws on the public. Most times the public will voluntarily submit to their authority. If the public refuses to submit, the police officers have the authority to use whatever force is required to assert their authority. That is why if a vehicle flees from something as simple as running a stop light, the officer feels the need to make the top (Franklin, 2006).

A suspect telling the officers no are not acceptable for not submitting to the officer’s enforcement action. This involves emotion with younger and inexperienced officers as it is hard to control. If during a domestic dispute, the officer told the suspect husband that he was under arrest, it would not be ok for that suspect just to say no. We cannot expect the officer to turn around and go do a report on it. Actually in this case the officer would be disciplined. This is where the mind set of the officer comes from which has been formed over a period of time (Graham, 2006). Police administrators face the daunting task of balancing the risk of liability against the need to administer law enforcement activities to the community. These administrators have to listen to the political supervisors, public opinion and citizens that the agency serves. They are held accountable to the liability insurance carriers. These carriers have the goal that is different from law enforcement agencies. They are in the business of keeping risks of claims low (Dahlinger, 2005). This is done by reducing high risk activities in which the agency is involved. This can be done by either not allowing the activity at all or restricting the ways to reduce the possibility of claims. The power that the carriers have over the agency is that if they don’t confirm to their rules, the insurance rates are higher for the agency.


As long as police actions are reasonable during the pursuits the courts seem they do not hold the police liable. This seems to lead one to believe that the court’s support of these actions would allow the pursuits to continue. Winning the court case is not the only concern that comes into play. Just a claim filed against the agency is something they try to avoid. Defending and winning a case that involve these actions is very expensive. Most of the time, the insurance carriers will settle at an amount that is lower then what it costs to defend. The public opinion of what has occurred is a great motivator behind how these activities are handled.

There is no doubt that police pursuits should be considered and are high risk incidents. This alone should not make police administrators shy away from conducting pursuits. Police agencies engage in, supervise and manage numerous high risk incidents on a daily basis. Police administrators should be very well trained in the managing of high risk incidents or activities. If police administrators ignore the basic foundation of police work, catching the bad guy, then they have the potential of making their agency unstable. This instability will be in the eyes of their officers and the public that they serve. A complete ban on police pursuits can not even be considered. A complete ban would include a police officer observing a suspect murder a person then get in a car and drive away. The police officer would be banned from pursuing this suspect. After the non pursuit if that suspect was not apprehended in a timely manner or worse if he killed again, the agency would suffer irreparable damage to their image and the administrator may even lose their job.

The next option is to chase everyone the police try to stop. This would include stopping a vehicle that does not have a license plate light. There have been instances of suspect running even when the violation is so minor. First the suspect does not know why the police are stopping them. Second usually they are not running because of the light being out but are involved in something the suspect deems more serious. The problem here is that the officer can not make a judgment on why the offender is running because that information is in the suspect’s mind. The suspect may have just murdered someone and has the body in their car or it may be a under age kid that has beer in the car. The parents of the kid have told him that if he gets caught with beer that he will lose his car forever. This kid being immature and making a bad decision may run from the police because he does not want to lose his car and it’s common to run, just watch TV. Even if the officer knows that most likely the suspect is running for some other reason, the officer has to be able to identify the reason the suspect is running. Only then can the officer make a good judgment. Traditional Pursuit of all suspected persons on all violations of the law can not be implemented.


Alpert, G. P. & Dunham, R. G. (2006). Police Pursuit Driving Controlling Responses to Emergency Situations. NY: Greenwood Press

Alvord , Valerie (2006). Police pressured to call off chase. USA Today, p. Nation.

Beckman, E. (2005). A Report to Law Enforcement on Factors in Police Pursuits. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice.

Dahlinger, Charles. “The Consequences of Not Adequately Training or Reviewing Departmental Policy.” Law & Order (December 2005)

Franklin, Carl J. The Police Officer’s Guide to Civil Liability. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2006

Graham, Gordon J. Law Enforcement Civil Liability: The True Story. Long Beach, CA: Graham Research Consultants, 2006

Hill, John (2006). High-speed police pursuits: dangers, dynamics, and risk reduction. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,The,, 71,

Johns , Marci S. (2006). The Reformation of Fleeing and Attempting to Elude Police Laws: A Step Towards Deterrence.

Nelson, D. & Brune, T. (2007). In Hot Pursuit: One-Third of Police Chases End in Crashes–and Some Elude Rules. Chicago Sun-Times 2007, 1, 18.

Peak, Kenneth J. (2007). Justice Administration: Police, Courts and Corrections Management. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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