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Deputy's widow files suit against Sanger
Husband was killed in high-speed police pursuit
December 2, 2005 -- The widow of Fresno County sheriff's deputy Joshua Lancaster contends the Sanger Police Department was negligent in a high-speed police pursuit that led to her husband's death.

In a civil lawsuit, Heather Lancaster is asking for unspecified damages for police negligence in Fresno County Superior Court.

Sanger's lawyer, Bruce Praet, however, says California law gives police departments immunity from such legal action.

Judge Mark W. Snauffer heard legal arguments Thursday about a state law that was intended to give police officers guidelines in high-speed pursuits of criminals, but fails to require police officers to follow the guidelines.

Joshua Lancaster was killed May28, 2003, when a suspected car thief slammed into his unmarked patrol car. Sanger police did not notify the Sheriff's Department about the police pursuit so Lancaster, a burglary detective patrolling the Sanger area, was unaware of it.

Praet argued that Heather Lancaster's lawsuit should be dismissed because Sanger police fulfilled the state's requirement of having a policy that gives guidelines on how to handle police pursuits.

The policy specifies that Sanger police officers should notify other law enforcement agencies when a police chase forces a suspect out of the city, but state law does not require such notification, Praet argued.

Heather Lancaster's lawyers, Wilda White and Rick Berman, argued that Sanger's policy is not in compliance with state law because there is no evidence that Police Chief Tom Klose adopted the police pursuit policy.

If the policy was adopted, there is no evidence that officers were trained in it or could carry it out, because at the time of Lancaster's death most of the Sanger officers didn't have radios that would have allowed them to communicate with other agencies.

According to White, Klose said in a deposition that only two officers had radios capable of contacting other agencies. But the officers were too busy in the pursuit to use them, White said.

"The Sanger policy is a sham," Berman said.

Snauffer said he will decide by Dec.15 whether to dismiss Heather Lancaster's lawsuit or allow it to continue.

The reporter can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6434.

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