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Injured Bystander May Prove Cop Indifference

(CN) - A South Texas city must face claims over a police chase that ended with a patrol car smashing into an apartment and injuring a pregnant tenant, a federal judge ruled.

The accident occurred while Harlingen policeman Zackary Rhinehart pursued a suspect from Harlingen to an apartment complex in neighboring San Benito in the early morning of April 3, 2011.

In the apartment parking lot Rhinehart executed a high-speed pit maneuver on the suspect's car, which sent both vehicles through the walls of Joanna Pyle's home.

Pyle sued the city of Harlingen, its city manager, its police chief, Rhinehart and an unknown Harlingen police supervisor, claiming she was thrown 7 feet out of bed on impact and suffered injuries that caused her baby to be born with defects.

The woman said Rhinehart did not have probable cause to pursue the suspect as the man eluded Rhinehart's attempt to detain him and got into a gray Mercury Grand Marquis in central Harlingen.

"In violation of Harlingen Police pursuit policy, Rhinehart initiated a vehicle chase, which started in central Harlingen and ended in San Benito," the complaint states. "Along the way, four additional Harlingen patrol units joined in the chase."

Before reaching San Benito, the suspect had allegedly rammed through a patrol car Harlingen police had used to block him in.

Pyle said Rhinehart went outside his jurisdiction and disregarded the safety of residents when he slammed into the suspect's car in the apartment parking lot.

U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle dismissed a negligence claim Thursday, finding that Rhinehart and his unknown supervisor are entitled to qualified immunity under Texas law because they were acting within the course of their employment.

Pyle's Fourth Amendment claim cannot survive either, the judge said, since the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures belong in this case to the fleeing suspect.

Tagle refused, however, to dismiss Pyle's allegations under the 14th Amendment, which covers claims of deliberate indifference against police officers involved in suspect pursuits.

Noting that the Harlingen police were not involved in a chase that necessitated split-second decisions, Tagle found they may have shown deliberate indifference in continuing the pursuit into the apartment complex.

Rhinehart in particular could be liable for disregarding the safety of residents, the 25-page ruling states.

"Pyle's allegation that Rhinehart 'initiated the dangerous 'pit' maneuver next to parked cars and the residential units of the apartment complex' states a plausible claim that Rhinehart consciously disregarded a known excessive risk to the safety of nearby residents," Tagle wrote.

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