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ACLU Applauds Court Ruling on Police Liability for High Speed Chase

Posted: May 16, 2005|Category: Active Case Category: Police Practices

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The ACLU of Rhode Island applauded a ruling issued today by the R.I. Supreme Court, holding that a woman seriously injured during a high speed police chase was entitled to a trial on her claim that police acted recklessly in pursuing the suspect who hit the car in which she was a passenger.

The accident occurred in 1994 during a dangerous chase of a stolen flatbed tow truck that involved several police departments and lasted thirty minutes. It culminated, in the Supreme Court’s words, “in a caravan of cruisers” chasing the truck on I-95 heading south in the northbound lanes “and ended when the operator of the stolen vehicle drove around a hastily erected [state police] roadblock and smashed into” the car of the plaintiff, Mary Seide. A lower court dismissed the suit, but the Supreme Court today reversed that decision.

The Court noted that state law allows drivers of emergency vehicles to ignore traffic rules, but they are not protected from their “reckless disregard for the safety of others.” The Court also found that sufficient evidence for trial existed that the police were “the proximate cause of the collision.” The court noted that when police first encountered the truck, the suspect was driving within the speed limit and not in a dangerous manner, and began driving dangerously only when the high speed chase began. In short, “The plaintiff produced evidence that reasonably could lead to the conclusion that the officers’ decision to continue the pursuit and their failure to terminate the chase earlier, when they realized the danger it posed to themselves as well as innocent citizens, was in reckless disregard for the safety of others.”

For more than 15 years, the Rhode Island ACLU has voiced serious concerns about dangerous high speed chases. In 1989, the Affiliate issued a detailed report that documented the significant number of deaths and serious injuries that had occurred here due to questionable high speed pursuits. Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly passed a law requiring all police departments to adopt high-speed chase policies and make them available to the public for review. The ACLU report, “Life and Death in the Fast Lane: The Dangerous Nature of Police High Speed Chases in Rhode Island,” examined over 50 dangerous pursuits in the state over a five year period, and made numerous recommendations to limit this police practice. Over the years, the number of chases resulting in death or serious injury has significantly declined.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “By holding that police can be held accountable for their decision to engage in dangerous high speed pursuits, today’s court ruling will make all residents of Rhode Island safer.” The ACLU was not involved in the case.

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