Retired CDC researchers, Kryzysztof Krawczynski, 77, and Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynski, 78, were killed in a car accident in Gwinnett County on January 28, 2016. The tragic sequence of events started when a Johns Creek police officer, William Goins, attempted to stop a white Ford Crown Victoria for an equipment violation because it had multiple antennas and resembled a police car. Larry Thomas, a 47-year-old Tennessee resident, was driving the Crown Victoria and his son, Jessee Thomas, 18, was riding as a passenger. Thomas refused to stop for the officer and led police on a 2-minute, 4-mile police chase that at times reached speeds up to 83 miles per hour. While evading the police at a high speed, Thomas collided with the Krawczynskis' silver Mercedes at the intersection of Peachtree Parkway and Jay Bird Alley. The Krawczynskis, who were simply returning home from a birthday dinner with their daughter, were killed. After the crash, Thomas and his son were charged with multiple offenses, including vehicular homicide, DUI, trafficking in methamphetamine and possession of marijuana, cocaine and LSD.
Police Chase Liability
Police chases are dangerous events. Under Georgia state law, a law enforcement officer's pursuit of a fleeing suspect is not considered the legal cause of a collision between the fleeing suspect and another vehicle. See O.C.G.A. sec. 40-6-6(d)(2). There is one big exception to this rule though. If the pursuing officer "acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in the officer's decision to initiate or continue the pursuit," then the officer's actions can be considered the legal cause of the subsequent crash.
Determining whether an officer acted with "reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures" depends on a number of facts. It requires an analysis of both the officer's actions and the law enforcement policies and procedures that exist. Most departments have detailed written policies regarding police chases. For example, in Ray v. City of Griffin, a case that the Georgia Court of Appeals decided in 2012, the City of Griffin, Georgia was being sued by someone who claimed he was injured when a fleeing suspect hit his vehicle. The Georgia Court of Appeals analyzed the City's Standard Operating Procedures manual, which stated that:
"(1) no officer shall initiate a high speed motor vehicle pursuit of any vehicle which, at the time of the contact, is known only to have committed a traffic or misdemeanor offense; (2) during pursuit, deliberate physical contact between vehicles such as bumping or ramming is considered lethal force and will not be justified at any time; (3) the operator of a police vehicle operating under emergency procedures shall drive with care and due regard for the safety of others, and police vehicles operating under emergency conditions shall utilize emergency lights and siren to warn other vehicles and pedestrians along the route; (4) a police vehicle operating under emergency conditions may exceed the posted speed limit so long as life or property are not endangered; (5) when the operator of a pursued vehicle increases his speed or drives in such a manner as to endanger the safety of others, the pursuing officer shall immediately and continuously use both the blue lights and the siren throughout the pursuit; and (6) the initial officer shall terminate pursuit when the gravity of the offense and the prospect of losing the suspect will not balance with the hazards to the officer and public."
Based on the facts of the police chase in the case before it, the Court of Appeals determined that the City could be held liable for the officer's actions because there was evidence that the officer acted with reckless disregarded for proper law enforcement procedures.
There will be a lot of evidence available to investigators as they determine whether Officer Goins' actions complied with department procedure. Some of the most valuable evidence will come from the dash cam video recording in Officer Goins' vehicle and the audio recordings of dispatch records. Because the chase spanned several miles, there will likely be numerous witnesses who can be interviewed. If it is determined that Officer Goins violated the Johns Creek Police Department's procedures during the chase, he may be disciplined, and the City of Johns Creek may find itself facing a civil lawsuit.
Of course, the fact that the City may be held liable for an officer's actions in a police chase should not excuse the actions of the driver who was fleeing the police. That individual should face significant criminal punishment, as well as civil liability. At the same time though, police officers have a responsibility to keep us safe. After all, that is why most departments have detailed policies and procedures that need to be followed in pursuing fleeing suspects.
While it is too early to tell whether Officer Goins' actions were in reckless disregard for department procedures, an important fact that is already known is that the chase started when he attempted to pull over Larry Thomas' Crown Victoria for a minor traffic offense: an equipment violation. This minor traffic offense resulted in a dangerous high speed chase that spanned several miles on city streets and endangered the lives of everyone in the area. When the danger to the public outweighs the police's interest in catching the suspect, the police officer's actions should be scrutinized.