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California's top court rules for police in a pursuit accident case

California's top court rules for police in a pursuit accident case
The wreckage of a vehicle involved in a fatal police pursuit that ended in L.A. earlier this year. The California Supreme Court ruled Monday for the Gardena Police Department, which was involved in a pursuit in 2015. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A police department whose policy requires 100% of its officers to certify they have read and understood the vehicle-pursuit protocol is not liable for an accident even if all its members failed to sign, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday.

The case was closely watched by law enforcement and safety advocates. Police chases in California regularly lead to injuries and deaths, with roughly a quarter ending in collisions, according to the California Highway Patrol. On average, there are 23 police chases a day in California.

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In a decision written by Justice Ming W. Chin, the state high court interpreted California law to allow departments to escape liability if their written policies mandate 100% officer certification.

The “plain meaning” of a 2005 law on police pursuits is that a department must have a policy requiring 100% compliance to achieve immunity, “not that every peace officer must meet the requirement,” Chin wrote.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit against the city of Gardena by the mother of a passenger in a pickup truck that police were pursuing in 2015 for a cellphone robbery.

About a minute into the pursuit, a Gardena officer rammed the truck, causing the death of 19-year-old Mark Gamar.

Mildred O’Linn, a lawyer for Gardena, said Monday’s decision was “worth millions in governmental immunity to cities and counties.”

“There is nothing harmful about this decision to the community,” O’Linn said.

Abdalla J. Innabi, who represented Gamar’s mother, said the ruling ended the ability of victims of police pursuits to obtain compensation as long as a department has a pursuit policy in place.

The court “just made things a lot more dangerous for people on the roadways or near roadways where pursuits are because all departments will have policies in place,” Innabi said.

Gardena has a pursuit policy. A training log produced by the city showed that only 81 of the city’s 92 officers had certified they completed the annual training within a year of the incident, the court said.

Innabi argued that Gardena could be held liable for Gamar’s death because the law required 100% compliance.

Law enforcement associations throughout the state countered that requiring 100% of officers to certify in writing to the policy would be administratively impossible to achieve, particularly for large law enforcement agencies.

The court agreed with law enforcement, deciding 100% certification “would make it very difficult for a public entity like the city to achieve immunity, and almost impossible for a large entity employing thousands of peace officers.”

Such a requirement “would greatly reduce the incentive for public entities, especially large ones, to promulgate the policy and provide the training, something we doubt the Legislature intended,’’ Chin wrote.

The decision overturned a court of appeal ruling two years ago that allowed family members of a man killed during a police chase in Beaumont to sue.

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The court of appeal said Beaumont, which had a pursuit policy, had not “promulgated” it because not all officers had certified that they had read and understood it. Following that decision, Beaumont settled the case with the victim’s family for $999,999.

A different court of appeal considering the Gardena case ruled 100% certification was unnecessary, creating a conflict that the state’s highest court resolved Monday.

The court said it was not required to decide whether there should be liability for a department “when a lack of compliance with the certification requirement or meaningful implementation of the pursuit policy” shows a department was not following the law.

Ladell Hulet Muhlestein, who argued the case for Gardena, said the court did not address what would happen if a department had a requirement but did little to enforce it and only one officer certified.

Gardena’s lawyers said the city conducted training on pursuits several times a year. The officer who caused the crash was a driving instructor and had certified to training in the year before the accident, they said.

Innabi insisted the ruling closed the door to future lawsuits.

Police departments “don’t have to train,” he said. “They just have to have a requirement that they train.”

During pursuits, a department “now can do anything it wants” as long as it has a policy in place, he said.

State lawmakers over the past two decades have struggled to find ways to protect local governments from huge jury awards or settlements in pursuit cases and at the same time heed calls for making chases safer.

For a while, state law gave all peace officers complete immunity from suits if their agencies had a pursuit policy. But as lives continued to be lost, clamor grew to end the legal protections for law enforcement.

In 2002, “Kristie” Marie Elena Priano, 15, an honor student from Chico, died after her family’s minivan was hit by a car fleeing police. The driver of the other car was 15, and her mother had reported to police that she had taken the car without permission.

In another pursuit case that year, a Santa Ana-based state court of appeal wrote that giving police immunity from suits for merely having a written pursuit policy was “cold comfort to victims.”

“We urge the Legislature to revisit this statute and seriously reconsider the balance between public entity immunity and public safety,” the three-judge panel wrote, throwing out a lawsuit by a victim of a pursuit.

The 2005 law was a response to such cases. It made revisions, which went into effect in 2007, that required all peace officers to certify that they read and understood the pursuit policy and mandated annual training for officers.

Pursuits across California dipped each year from 2005 to 2010, records show.

But chases across the state have risen during the past four years, jumping from 6,731 in 2014 to 8,955 last year, a surge of about 33%, according to a Times analysis of data maintained by the California Highway Patrol.

The number of injuries sustained during those chases rose by 31% during the same time frame.

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with background and reaction.

This article was originally published at 1:20 p.m.

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