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Cops forget the innocent in high-speed chases

by RICHARD RIEHL - For the North County Times
Serving San Diego and Riverside Counties

May 12, 2005 -- Three years ago, a 15-year-old Chico girl took her mother's SUV without permission for a joy ride with her friends. Police were chasing her when she ran a stop sign, colliding with a van and killing Kristie Priano, a 15-year-old honor student.

Richard Riehl

Kristie's family claimed the officer had not complied with police department policy in the chase that led to Kristie's death. The family was unable to collect damages, however, because current law permits immunity from civil action if police agencies have written hot-pursuit policies, even if an officer in hot pursuit does not follow that policy.

To reduce the number of deaths and injuries resulting from high-speed police pursuits, state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, has tried for the last two years to pass Kristie's Law, which would create statewide standards for police pursuits and hold officers accountable for their decisions to engage in them.

Last year's bill failed to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee by one vote. Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, was among those opposing it.

This year's bill recently failed passage in the Senate's Committee on Public Safety.

The California Peace Officers Association and the Police Chiefs Association both opposed the bill. On the same day, in the same committee, SB 317, which imposes stiffer penalties for those evading police in hot pursuit, passed without opposition from police groups.

Those who flee police in hot pursuit undoubtedly deserve stiff penalties for endangering the public. But the fear of punishment is unlikely to be much of a deterrent for the many who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and not likely to be considering the consequences of their actions.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, California leads the nation in the number of deaths resulting from high-speed police chases each year, averaging about one fatality a week. According to Sen. Aanestad, nearly half of those who died in California last year were not involved in the chase.

Aanestad points out that 63 percent of chases are initiated because of vehicle code violations, such as broken tail lights, expired license plates or failure to use seat belts. These are hardly the kind of crimes that would justify the death or injury of an innocent person caught in the chase.

Kristie's Law would have set statewide standards for high-speed police pursuits, allowing police to continue to chase suspects of serious felonies that put the public in imminent peril.

Without statewide standards, and with no legal accountability for a police officer's decision to chase suspects, we can expect another 50 to 60 Californians to die this year as the result of high-speed chases on our streets and highways.

It appears the two state police groups opposing Kristie's Law are more interested in protecting their members from litigation than in public safety.

North County Times columnist Richard Riehl lives in Carlsbad. He is a former administrator at Cal State San Marcos.

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