The recent settlement of a case in which a police chase resulted in an innocent motorist's death and an injury to his passenger again points to the need for a statewide law governing high-speed police chases.
"High-speed chases are dangerous not only for police and suspects, but also for innocent bystanders. The Legislature should adopt a law that allows high-speed police chases only when serious felony conduct involving harm to individuals is suspected," said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.
The case just settled involved the death of an innocent motorist, Matthew Acheson, a 25 year-old University of Washington student who was killed in August of 1996, and an injury to Andrea Del Cielo, a passenger in his vehicle. The Acheson vehicle was struck by a pickup truck that was being chased by police over expired license tabs. The City of Sultan and Snohomish County have paid a total of $600,000 to settle the case. The case was brought on behalf of Acheson's estate and Ms. Del Cielo by Anthony Shapiro of the Seattle law firm Rohan, Goldfarb & Shapiro.
"No license registration violation is worth a life," said the ACLU's Kathleen Taylor. "Furthermore, suspects can be apprehended without resorting to dangerous, TV-style chases," she said.
Local and national policies are available that provide appropriate criteria for high-speed chases. Olympia, for example, allows dangerous vehicle pursuits only "[t]o apprehend suspects in serious crimes against persons." Yakima allows high-speed chases only when an officer believes the pursued has committed "a serious felony" involving "an actual or threatened attack" that could have or has "resulted in death or serious bodily injury." Bothell allows high-speed chases in the face of "a dangerous felony." Nationally, the Florida Highway Patrol allows high-speed chases to apprehend a person suspected of "a crime of violence. ALL OTHER PURSUITS ARE PROHIBITED" (emphasis in original).
Analysis of data from the Washington State Patrol shows, for example, that more than 55 percent of high-speed chases initiated by the State Patrol in 1996 were over noncriminal (civil) traffic infraction matters. Sadly, a policy recently adopted by the State Patrol lacks language that explicitly restricts dangerous high-speed pursuits to the most serious law enforcement circumstances.
Within the past year the Attorney General's office has settled $500,000 in claims against the State Patrol for deaths and injuries resulting from high-speed chase accidents. This brings the total to more than $854,000 of taxpayer dollars that have been paid out in these kinds of claims in recent years. Similar lawsuits are currently pending against Enumclaw and the State of Washington.