SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California police agencies cannot be held liable for vehicle pursuits that result in collisions, injuries or death when chasing suspects if there is a policy in place and officers say in writing they understand that policy, the state’s highest court ruled Monday.
The California Supreme Court’s opinion stems from a lawsuit filed against the city of Gardena over a 2015 police pursuit left a 19-year-old passenger dead after officers struck the left bumper of a truck being driven by the victim’s mother Irma Ramirez.
Ramirez filed a wrongful death suit against the city, located in Los Angeles County, saying the officer who used the maneuver was negligent and liable for battery.
At the time, attorneys for Gardena said the city was immune under state law which says police agencies cannot be sued for damages for personal injury or death stemming from a police pursuit.
Both the trial court and the Second Appellate District sided with Gardena, which said its police offers pursued Ramirez because they suspected she was involved in a robbery. She was later convicted of robbery.
The lower courts had also rejected claims the Gardena Police Department did not provide evidence that “all of its officers executed written certifications in compliance” with the state law. Active officers receive pursuit training at least annually and are required to say in writing that they understand the department’s policies.
On Monday, the California Supreme Court justices unanimously affirmed the appellate panel’s finding that Gardena had no obligation to prove total compliance with the certification requirement.
“A requirement may exist even if not every peace officer complies with it,” wrote Associate Justice Ming Chin.
“Beyond that, we need not decide when a lack of compliance with the certification requirement or meaningful implementation of the pursuit policy indicates that an agency is not satisfying the statute’s requirements. Those questions fall outside the scope of the issue presented for our review.”
Chin wrote that the sole issue on review involved legislative language. The state law says “promulgation” of the policy must include “a requirement that all peace officers of the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read and understand the policy.”
But “the plain meaning of this language is that the policy must contain the requirement, not that every peace officer must meet the requirement,” Chin wrote.
Ramirez’s attorney, Pasadena-based Abdalla Innabi, called Monday’s opinion disappointing and shortsighted for California’s safety.
“There is nothing out there that says a police department is not immune,” said Innabi in a phone interview.
“The people of the state of California have no assurances now that officers involved in these pursuits are in compliance with a department’s policies. That doesn’t make people safer. It does the opposite”
Innabi said this is an issue the Legislature must take up.
The justices effectively reverse a 2016 finding in Morgan v. Beaumont Police Department, which said cities must make sure all their officers certify in writing that they understand the policy on police pursuits and on which Ramirez had based her case.