Grieving parents ask limits on chases


By Aurelio Rojas -- Bee Capitol Bureau
April 14, 2004

The latest proposal to curb police pursuits in California - dubbed "Kristie's Law" after a 15-year-old who was fatally injured in a crash in Chico - unleashed tearful testimony Tuesday before a legislative committee.

"I wake up every day asking, 'How could this happen?' " Kristie's father, Mark Priano, told the Senate Committee on Public Safety. An honor student and athlete at Champion Christian School in Chico, Kristie died in January 2002, seven days after a vehicle crashed into her family's van while fleeing police. That car was driven by another 15-year-old who had driven off with her mother's vehicle.

"We did not volunteer to be a rolling roadblock for the police," Kristie's mother, Candy Priano, told the Senate panel. Moved by the tragedy, state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, has introduced a bill that would standardize police pursuit policies in California and limit chases to cases in which the public faces "certain, immediate and impending" peril. Existing California law largely shields police departments from liability in these cases. But as the pursuits have increased, so have calls for ending immunity. Nick Warner, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs' Association, said the Prianos' testimony drove him closer to tears than any bill with which he's been involved.

But Warner and other law enforcement representatives spoke in opposition to Aanestad's measure. They said SB 1866 would expose police departments to an avalanche of lawsuits. "We think this bill holds taxpayers and public agencies responsible for the actions of fleeing suspects," Warner said. "We think a better approach is to strengthen penalties for fleeing suspects." The debate reprises arguments over a more narrowly drawn bill - SB 219 by Sen. Gloria Romero - that died in the Assembly last year after law enforcement groups vigorously opposed it.

Sen. Bruce McPherson, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, delayed a vote on Aanestad's bill until next week because not enough of the panel's members were present. "I think it will get out of the committee," McPherson said after the testimony. But if last year's debate is a prologue, the measure faces an uphill fight. "Legislators are afraid of law enforcement groups," said Romero, D-Los Angeles.

Her measure would have required police to prove department policies were followed and, if not, open departments up to lawsuits. Aanestad's measure is more sweeping. It would do away with the patchwork of department pursuit policies and establish a statewide policy that police would be compelled to follow. Officers would be personally liable in cases of "gross and willful neglect" that were proven in court, Aanestad told the panel. "This bill is about saving lives," he told his colleagues. "It's not about telling law enforcement how to go about their business." But representatives of law enforcement groups disagreed, arguing the measure would subject officers to second-guessing when they often have to make split-second decisions. Kristie Priano was one of 14 bystanders killed in police pursuits in California in 2002, according to the most recent California Highway Patrol statistics, which show there were 6,337 police chases that year.

But Aanestad said fatality statistics understate the extent of the problem and do not take into account collisions and injuries - many of them permanent. John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Association and California Police Chiefs Association, said Aanestad's proposal is misguided. "Our problem with this bill is that, conceptually, what it does is make police agencies civilly liable - not for their conduct, but for the conduct of the fleeing suspect," Lovell said.

Lovell called for creation of a crime victims' fund - perhaps through a statewide insurance pool - to compensate families of victims killed in pursuits. But Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, said Lovell was missing the point of the bill.

"This is not about compensation," Sher said. "This is about preventing this from happening."