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The Daily Breeze

Chase deaths are no trivial pursuit 

By Robert L. Bastian Jr.

May 20, 2005 -- The predictable and steady carnage from police pursuits in California continues unabated. In the latest incident, a Lawndale father and his 15-year-old son were chased on Sunday after an argument with the boy's mother. The chase was conducted at speeds up to 80 mph through Hawthorne, Gardena and Torrance. As is often the case, an innocent passenger in the vehicle T-boned by the fleeing vehicle -- in this case a 30-year-old woman -- was the one who perished.
The best available statistics indicate that nearly once a week someone dies in California at the end of such police pursuits. Between a third and one half of those people bore no responsibility for the pursuit.
California leads the nation in such tragic outcomes. Not coincidentally, California also has the most forgiving blanket immunity law in favor of police departments. California's law enforcement agencies are required to promulgate pursuit policies, but, remarkably, not to adhere to them. In essence, the police are not required to follow their own or, for that matter, any rules.
As the law stands, a police officer cannot recklessly fire his weapon across a school yard to stop a pursuit, no matter how trivial the circumstances, without being held civilly accountable. But he can recklessly drive his vehicle across it in high speed pursuit, and not even his department can be held accountable. A California appellate court, which reluctantly dismissed the lawsuit of a widow of someone killed on school grounds in Westminster by such a pursuit, expressed its disgust at the "get out of liability free card" that California law afforded law enforcement.
Some might ask why law enforcement has to follow rules for recklessly shooting a weapon across a school yard, but not for recklessly pursuing a vehicle? The reason is there is a loophole in federal constitutional law whereby if a person is stopped by the metal of a bullet, he is generally considered seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, but not if he is stopped by the metal of a car. Thus, law enforcement does not bother lobbying for immunity under state law for their use of firearms, as they would still be held accountable under federal law.
For the past two years, a "law-and-order" Republican state senator from Grass Valley, Sam Aanestad, has unsuccessfully butted against a blue wall in his attempts to enact Kristie's law, which would roll back some of the immunity under state law.
Aanestad's constituent, Candy Priano's daughter, a 15-year-old honor student in Chico, was a victim of what might fairly be termed a trivial pursuit. Kristie was a passenger in a vehicle which was T-boned at the end of a chase conducted through a populated residential area. The fleeing suspect, a teenager whose identity and address was known by police, was accused of taking the family car without permission.
Instead of Kristie's Law, the Senate Public Safety committee backed an alternative bill by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, that increases penalties for those who flee, funding for police training and compensation for innocent victims of chases. A companion bill, by Sen. Bob Margett, R-Arcadia, would also boost penalties and was passed 5-0 by the committee. Romero, who has authored chase legislation for three years, justified her compromise effort by asserting that her bill has a better chance of becoming law.
Romero's bill would subsidize, not deter, pursuits by pawning off some of the costs of bad pursuits on the victim restitution fund instead of the irresponsible departments. Margett's bill would cost the state up to $10 million more per year to incarcerate fleeing subjects. Penalties for flights resulting in severe bodily injury would increase from three to five years to three to seven years.
Added criminal penalties, however, are unlikely to deter where a fleeing suspect's judgment, already presumptively lacking, is impaired by alcohol, drugs, mental illness or, in the case of the driver who slammed into the van carrying Kristie, teenage immaturity. Even those persons who are acting with minimum rationality are usually motivated to flight because they are already facing severe criminal penalty. There is scant evidence that marginally increasing criminal penalties will reduce the number of pursuits. The problem in California, as opposed to other states, is caused by those poorly trained or supervised officers who compound bad situations with their own negligence.
For the moment, Kristie's Law is shelved. Consequently, there is another year to accumulate evidence regarding California law enforcement's unique experiment in blanket immunity. That is, except for those unfortunate citizens handed the weekly negative lottery ticket that is California public policy.
Robert L. Bastian Jr. is an attorney in Los Angeles.


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