Recent Court Decisions: Lewis v. Sacramento County, Calif.

"Deliberate Indifference" Standard Adopted for Liability in High Speed Pursuits.

Lewis v. Sacramento County, Calif., 60 CrL 1078 (9th Cir. 1996).

In examining a civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 against a police officer and his employer for a fatal high speed chase of a motorcycle on which two teenage boys were riding, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the appropriate standard for determining whether there was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process protections was "deliberate indifference" or reckless disregard for the plaintiffs lives and personal security. The case involved allegations that the officer, in conducting the chase, violated departmental guidelines on when to initiate and when to terminate a high speed pursuit. It appeared that the pursued motorcyclist and passenger were violating no law at the time of the pursuit.

The court relied in part on the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), in which the deliberate indifference standard was adopted as the basis for municipal liability for failure to train police officers in areas of critical importance and sensitivity to the safety of those with whom the police come in contact.

The court also denied qualified immunity under sec. 1983 to the officer. It said that the law on use of force concerning seizures of individuals and decisions from other circuit courts of appeals on liability in high speed chase cases was sufficiently clear at the time of the pursuit in the case to put the officer on notice of potential liability for especially dangerous conduct in police operations. At the same time, the court also said that it was limiting its decision on adoption of the deliberate indifference standard to cases involving high speed pursuit.

"We recognize that courts should be hesitant to second-guess government officials when they must make swift decisions regarding public safety. But even swift decisions, if arbitrary may violate the Fourteenth Amendment. . . . We believe that the appropriate degree of fault to be applied to high-speed police pursuits is deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person s right to life and personal security."

This particular court is a trend-setter in the federal judiciary and its decision undoubtedly will carry much weight in the years to come.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particular case.

Copyright (c) 1996 Law Enforcement Legal Publications

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