The trial of a Taylorsville police officer charged over a year ago with misdemeanor negligent homicide has been put on hold while the defense requests an interlocutory appeal.
Officer Joseph James Corbett was in his patrol car with his lights and sirens on when he collided with another vehicle at the intersection of 4700 South and Redwood Road on Feb. 7, 2007. The driver of the other vehicle, John Douglas, 27, of Tooele, was killed.
Prosecutors contend Corbett wasn't following the accepted standard for emergency driving in Utah when he was responding to help other officers involved in a high-speed chase. The defense argues that not only was Douglas text-messaging while driving and had the painkiller Tramadol in his system, there isn't actually a uniform emergency driving policy in Utah because the Department of Public Safety has failed to approve one as ordered by state lawmakers.
Corbett was charged in 3rd District Court with negligent homicide. A motion to dismiss the case last month was rejected by Judge Robert Adkins.
Following Adkins' refusal to dismiss, defense attorney Ed Brass filed a motion last week with the Utah appeals court requesting an interlocutory appeal. Monday, Adkins granted a stay in the case until the appellate court decides whether it will take the case. The judge admitted it's a difficult issue and stated that he hoped the appeals court will hear the case to settle some questions.
Brass said he was pleased Adkins granted the stay, but noted that the state statute on emergency driving in Utah is frustrating.
"The statute is supposed to give police officers some limited immunity or privileges. But it requests the presence of all those factors that are delineated in the statute, so it has no effect," Brass said. "Any police officer that engages in a chase does so at his or her own risk."
It's impossible for officers to know how to conform to the law when there is no law to begin with, he said.
" ... (Corbett) has no way to predict the standard of care expected of him in an emergency vehicle pursuit," the motion stated.
A couple of years ago, Utah lawmakers passed a law for emergency driving that said the policies of individual police departments had to "conform with the rule established by the Department of Public Safety." DPS has since drafted a minimum standard policy for emergency driving in Utah, but the policy has yet to receive final approval.
"Do the flaws in trial court's constitutional analysis leave Corbett and other officers at unfair risk of criminal and civil liability, and leave the public at risk of the dangers of non-uniform standards governing high speed chases and other emergency vehicle operations?" Brass asked in his motion.
Brass further contends the Utah Legislature "has failed to fulfill its duty of drafting clear legislation, but instead has delegated that duty to the Department of Public Safety.""The fact that there are no minimum rules enacted by the Department of Public Safety is a ripe and ongoing problem which must be remedied by the courts. Otherwise, officers and other emergency vehicle operators like Corbett will be engaging in high-speed chases and other emergency vehicle operations without any uniform safety standards to protect the public, and without (exemption laws aimed at protecting emergency responders)," the motion stated.