Kristie’s Law Would Control Cop Chases

by Robert L. Bastian Jr.

The Los Angeles Police Department has no explanation for why, on the night of last March 31, 2005 a motorcycle officer continued a wild pursuit of a forgery suspect on motorcycle through Westside red lights onto Beverly Hills sidewalks.

April 11, 2005 — The Los Angeles Police Department has no explanation for why, on the night of last March 31, a motorcycle officer continued a wild pursuit of a forgery suspect on motorcycle through Westside red lights onto Beverly Hills sidewalks.

The LAPD suggests he wasn’t one of their own, but no other police department in the area is claiming this officer either.

This bizarre police chase provides yet another reason to enact Kristie’s Law, a bill reintroduced last month by state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Nevada City, and joined by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. Kristie’s Law repairs a glaring deficiency in California law: As the vehicle code is currently written, law enforcement agencies in California must promulgate appropriate police pursuit policies. But they are not required to follow them.

If your grandparent recklessly breaks the rules of the road and injures someone, he or she is held legally accountable. But, if a police officer in the heat of a chase – like the officer in Beverly Hills – trades professionalism, training and restraint for reckless stupidity, there are no practical consequences for him or even his department.

It is dull surprise that California, the state with the most forgiving tort law imaginable regarding pursuits, also leads the nation in innocent fatalities during such chases. From 2001 until 2003, the National Highway Safety Administration reports, 159 Californians were killed in police pursuits, 59 of whom were innocent victims.

Kristie Priano’s story is a perfect example of the dangers. On that fateful day in 2002, a police officer initiated a pursuit through a Chico neighborhood of a teenager who had taken her mother’s car without permission. The fleeing car ultimately struck the Prianos’ family van and killed Kristie, a 15-year-old honor student on her way to her high school basketball game.

When Dirty Harry resolved a hostage situation by accelerating his car through the front window of a liquor store and shooting the startled bad guy in the head as he terrorized an innocent hostage, it made for gripping movie action. In the real world, however, officers are trained to exercise restraint, not least because in the uncontrolled real world, neither speeding bullets nor vehicles are as predictable as movie scripts.

Whereas the law does not permit officers to recklessly shoot bullets, say, across a schoolyard without reasonable justification, it does allow an officer to recklessly drive across a schoolyard in pursuit, no post-incident questions necessary. When, for example, such a schoolyard pursuit in Westminster resulted in death, a California appellate court reluctantly upheld a swift dismissal of the widow’s lawsuit.

The court, nonetheless, urged the Legislature to revise the law.

“The balance,” the troubled panel of three judges observed, “appears to have shifted too far toward immunity and left public safety, as well as compensation for innocent victims, twisting in the wind.”

Opponents of Kristie’s Law grumble that holding police departments accountable misdirects blame away from the lawbreakers who cause pursuits. These critics advocate, rather, increased criminal penalties for flight.

Added sanction, however, is unlikely to deter when a fleeing suspect’s judgment, already presumptively lacking, is impaired by alcohol, drugs, mental illness or, in the case of the driver who slammed into the van carrying Kristie Priano, teenage immaturity. To the extent such persons are even acting with minimum rationality, it is often fear of draconian penalties that motivates and adds urgency to the flight.

Opponents add Kristie’s Law will encourage others who would not otherwise flee to attempt escape. But the same argument has been made against imposing standards regarding the use of lethal weapons – and rejected. In most cases, there are better ways to solve the crime or make the arrest.

Even where there isn’t, police will still be free to initiate the pursuit. The difference is that, afterward, the police agency will be held accountable for instances of unreasonable judgment, training or supervision.

As the law currently sets, neither the daredevil cop in Beverly Hills nor his department could have been held accountable if someone was recklessly injured or killed. This assumes, of course, authorities can catch the cowboy or identify which department’s badge he wears.

Robert L. Bastian Jr. is an attorney in Los Angeles.