High court: Officers must consider safety of fleeing suspects
Ruling for Cache County family may influence Utah police pursuits
The decision only applied to the negligence claim against Harper, though, as the court found that the Torrie family failed to meet its burden when it came to its case against Weber County. Still, Peter Stirba — who represents Weber County and Harper — said the ruling did not comment on the deputy's actions or the case against Harper.
"The court decision did not address at all whether or not the officer involved here acted reasonably or appropriately — which we believe he did — nor does it address if he was even the cause of Mr. Torrie's untimely death, which we believe he was not," Stirba said.
He said the court's decision does "pose concerns for law enforcement" officers who may be more hesitant to pursue a suspect for the fear of facing a lawsuit. He suggested that various police agencies may revisit their policies on pursuits in light of Tuesday's ruling.
"There are public policy implications that exist that are of concern because if a duty is imposed on law enforcement in regards to fleeing suspects, regardless of what the suspect is fleeing for, it would create a huge disincentive for law enforcement to pursue anyone," Stirba said.
James McConkie Jr., attorney for the Torrie family, said the decision should prompt police officers to use their judgment before initiating a pursuit and realize they don't have blanket immunity from legal action.
"This is an absolutely positive change," McConkie said. "This is going to save lives. It's not going to interfere with good law enforcement, and we'll all be safer as a result."
But he said a balance is necessary and police should only chase when they know someone presents an imminent or immediate threat to the community. Wayne Torrie, though, was not such a suspect, McConkie said, stating that the teenager never even surpassed the speed limit until the police officer turned on his lights.
"It's not worth the life of a 16-year-old who has taken his mother's car without permission to end up in a death," McConkie said, adding that police officers should be trained to better handle suicidal suspects and others in crisis. "This was a horrible outcome."
Nehring wrote that the justices looked at state statute and a prior Utah Supreme Court ruling, which found that sometimes pursuits are not the best course of action, especially when the violation is minor and a pursuit could pose a risk of serious injury or death to bystanders or the fugitive. Ultimately, the details of the case required a closer look.
"We decline to interpret the statute beyond the plain wording chosen by the Legislature but acknowledge that the ultimate negligence analysis, including breach and proximate cause, is very case-specific and fact-intensive," the ruling states.
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