Proposed Law Would Limit Police Chases

Legislation put forward by a Republican state senator has provoked
law enforcement unions, which threaten political retaliation.

By Robert Salladay
L.A. Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO, April 12, 2004—A Republican lawmaker, dismayed by a police chase that ended in the death of a teenage girl from his Northern California district, wants to make police more accountable for high-speed pursuits.

New legislation designed to curb police chases comes a year after a similar measure by Democrats died amid intense lobbying from law enforcement unions. But this time, the effort is pitting a law-and-order Republican from a rural district against police -- a rarity in Sacramento.

"The way we're reading this, it will effectively shut down pursuits," said Redding Det. Aaron Maready, president of the police union there.

The measure carried by Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) would limit police chases to cases in which the public faces "imminent peril" if a suspect gets away. For the first time, it would open police to civil lawsuits if they disregarded the new statewide standard and someone were killed or injured.

Police and their lobbyists are furious about the measure and have vowed to kill it. Lawmakers, they say, should not dictate street-level police actions for something as unpredictable as a chase. And they believe the specter of civil lawsuits would hamper their ability to make quick decisions without fear of ending up in court.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature rarely challenge police with measures that would both take away their power and expose them to lawsuits, in part because law enforcement unions and department officials are powerful in the political world. Few things are more coveted in a reelection campaign than an endorsement from police.

Just introducing the measure has prompted threats of political retaliation against Aanestad, whose vast district extends from the college town of Chico to Redding and the Oregon border. Maready, the Redding detective, said he might form a coalition of police unions and work to unseat Aanestad in 2006.

"We would actively oppose his reelection if this were to carry on. He might see that district-wide," Maready said.

Aanestad's reaction: "I don't care."

Aanestad said he introduced the bill after hearing about the death of Kristie Priano, a 15-year-old high school basketball player from Chico. A teenage girl who had taken her mother's car without permission slammed into the Priano family minivan on its way to a game. Police knew where the teenage driver lived, but decided to pursue her, leading to the deadly chase.

Critics of the legislation say police must make quick decisions without fear of a protracted lawsuit. But Aanestad said that California law currently required only that police departments have a policy on car chases - yet nothing compels them to follow the policy.

Currently, the law prohibits lawsuits against police for negligence as long as there is a written policy on pursuits. Aanestad said the lawsuit threat in his legislation would make officers think twice before beginning an unnecessarily dangerous chase. 

Aanestad, an oral surgeon, made the comparison to a doctor who can be sued for malpractice but nevertheless still treats people in emergency situations. 

"I have lived my whole life putting people to sleep and doing surgery on them, realizing that any mistake can jeopardize my career and the life of somebody else. And that doesn't stop you from doing your job."

Aanestad's measure would require a single statewide standard for police
chases, overruling the patchwork of rules from city to city. Police  chases would be prohibited if officers were carrying a prisoner; if  their car did not have a forward-facing red light or a siren; and if the  vehicle being chased did "not represent an imminent peril."

To further refine the standard, Aanestad defines imminent peril in the  proposed law as: "Certain, immediate and impending. The peril is not  remote, uncertain or contingent. A likelihood of mere possibility of  injury or loss of life is not sufficient to create an imminent peril."

Police say this definition would cripple their ability to chase 

The legislation would "create an enormous liability for law enforcement 
agencies throughout the state," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca  wrote to Aanestad. "It attempts to address and impose many restrictions  upon extremely complex, dynamic and unpredictable events."

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, warned in a letter to Aanestad that police would "fail to pursue criminals because of the worry of [lawsuits] for not following the very detailed procedures in your measure. The public's safety could potentially be at risk if officers fail to conduct these pursuits." 

Santa Barbara Police Chief Camerino Sanchez, president of the California 
Police Chiefs Assn., said Aanestad should instead look at increasing the  penalties for fleeing suspects or establishing a statewide fund to  compensate victims after police chases, rather than allow lawsuits. 

Last year, the Legislature failed to approve a measure, written by Sen. 
Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), that would have required police to set  chase guidelines and, if the rules were not followed, open them up to civil lawsuits.

As in the Priano case, Romero's legislation came about because of a 
police chase that turned deadly. Khuong Van Nguyen was collecting cans  with his wife in the parking lot at La Quinta High School in Westminster  when a stolen van pursued by police smashed into him and caused massive  head injuries. 

He died three years later, but his family failed in its efforts to collect from the city of Westminster. An appeals court threw out the family's wrongful-death lawsuit, but encouraged the Legislature to reconsider the immunity it grants to cities and police. The court said current law appeared "to have shifted too far toward immunity and left public safety twisting in the wind."

"It's a joke," Romero said about the current situation, "because we can have a one-paragraph policy or we can have a 30-page policy. And at the end of the day, it's irrelevant, because the current loophole says you don't have to implement it."

Even before the Aanestad measure was written, police officers, chiefs, 
law enforcement unions, Democrats and Republicans were asking him to hold back. Now that the measure is to get its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Public Safety Committee, law enforcement officers have increased the pressure.

Amid this renewed debate about chases, however, police and sheriffs from Los Angeles, Fresno, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Orange County have refined their standards, in most cases to give officers more flexibility to call off pursuits. 

The Los Angeles Police Department sharply reduced the number of chases by relying more on helicopter surveillance and a new policy giving its officers discretion to call off chases involving minor crimes. The number of chases declined 62%, along with a reduction in injuries to bystanders, suspects and police, according to figures the department released last year. 

Candy Priano, mother of the 15-year-old teen, Kristie, killed in Chico, said those figures prove that if police would set tougher standards for pursuits, the number of injuries and deaths would decrease.