High court: Officers must consider safety of fleeing suspects
Ruling for Cache County family may influence Utah police pursuits
SALT LAKE CITY — The state's high court ruled Tuesday that a Cache County family can pursue its wrongful death lawsuit against a Weber County sheriff's deputy who was pursuing their son before he died in a rollover crash.
The Utah Supreme Court also found that law enforcement officers "owe a duty" to consider the safety of fleeing suspects in some circumstances.
Attorneys on both sides of the case say the ruling may impact the way Utah police officers act when they pursue fleeing suspects and may prompt departments to revisit their chase policies.
In a unanimous ruling penned by Justice Ronald Nehring, the court found that the family of Wayne J. Torrie can pursue its claim that the deputy's pursuit amounted to negligence. Nehring wrote that the case poses a question not posed before, stating: "This case presents an issue of first impression for this court — whether law enforcement owes a duty of care to fleeing suspects.
"Under a plain language analysis of the governing statute, we hold that law enforcement officers engaged in pursuit owe a duty to all persons, including fleeing suspects."
According to the ruling, the 16-year-old Petersboro teen came home from school on March 23, 2010, upset after having been teased by classmates. After arguing with a sibling, he took the family's Suburban and left the home.
The teen's mother called the Cache County Sheriff's Office, reported that her son had taken the family vehicle and asked that he be located and taken into custody. While on the phone, Wayne returned home but left again after discovering that his mother was speaking with police dispatchers, the ruling states.
The boy's mother tried to reach him on his cellphone, but he did not pick up. Instead, he texted her and indicated that he was suicidal.
"Mrs. Torrie informed dispatch that her son was threatening to commit suicide by crashing the vehicle if police attempted to apprehend him, but she did not ask law enforcement to stop their search efforts," the ruling states.
After learning the teen had most likely crossed into Weber County, Cache County officials advised dispatchers in Weber County of the situation, providing a description of the teen and explaining that he was suicidal and had told his parents he was almost out of gas. Cache County asked that the boy be taken into custody if located.
Soon after, Weber County sheriff's deputy Denton Harper saw Wayne and verified it was the vehicle and driver that were being sought. He pulled up behind him while the teenager was stopped at a stop sign, and the deputy turned on his overhead lights.
"Wayne disregarded deputy Harper's attempt to pull him over, turned right at the stop sign and began to accelerate," the ruling states. "Deputy Harper followed in pursuit."
Wayne apparently repeatedly crossed over double yellow lines to pass vehicles and reached speeds of 99 mph. Harper reported to dispatch that he was traveling about 75 mph.
"After less than a minute with deputy Harper in pursuit, Wayne's vehicle abruptly left the road and rolled several times in a neighboring field," Nehring wrote. "Wayne was ejected from the vehicle during the crash and subsequently died from his injuries."
Second District Judge Robert Dale ruled in favor of both Weber County and Harper and found no duty was owed to the teen. The high court's ruling reversed Dale's decision, as the justices agreed with the Torrie family that state law that exempts emergency vehicles from general traffic laws still imposes a duty that extends to fleeing suspects.
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