Dedicated to Sarah Phillips

Words to Live By

Kristie’s Bill Update


On 4/13/04, the hearing for Kristie's Law (SB 1866) took place in front of the California Senate Public Safety Committee. After the introduction of the bill by Sen. Aanestad and testimony by Mark and Candy Priano and myself, the opponents of the bill were given the opportunity to express themselves. A host of Law Enforcement representatives stepped to the witness table. After a self-serving statement from the first opponent of the bill about how he was moved to tears by the Prianos' story, he launched into a litany of often discredited clichés about why the police need wide discretion in pursuit policy:

·The bill holds law enforcement accountable for actions of the suspect:
The old "if the bad guys hadn't run defense. To believe this you must believe that the police must chase the suspect no matter what—through a school zone i.e., and have no choices in what they do.

·The "body in the trunk" theory. That every suspect who flees has committed a heinous crime. Research shows that only about 10-17% of the time is there a serious underlying crime.

·That by pursuing they prevent untold future crimes by the suspects. Why not arrest us all and prevent all future crime?

·Implying that they may never have another opportunity to catch the criminal and put him away. Habitual lawbreakers and dangerous career criminals interact with the police on a regular basis. They are not masterminds and they will be caught in due time. Additionally, pursuit is not the only tool available to police.

·If they know we won't chase everyone will run. Experience has shown that when pursuit policy is changed the number of suspects who flee remains fairly constant. Those who will flee, flee whatever the policy.

·Making fleeing and eluding a serious felony with serious penalties will stop pursuits. It will discourage some pursuits, and most supporters of SB 1866 support such legislation. It will not stop most pursuits and is not a substitute for good policy. It should be noted that seriously disproportionate penalties may actually serve to make pursuits more dangerous when a driver decides to flee in a momentary lapse in judgment is pushed to continue the pursuit because of the well-publicized harsh penalty.

·Policy has to be discretionary so police officers have the ability to handle a wide array of pursuit situations. Most of the decisions concerning pursuits can be made in policy and training (see The Myth of the Split-Second Decision) and the danger of making decisions in the midst of an an adrenaline overload is documented here.

·The huge cost of law suits to the taxpayers and individual officers would force police officers to never pursue. The easy answer is that if the agencies follow their policy and the policy meets minimum standards then there is still Blanket Immunity. In the real world there will be instances where poor judgement, sloppy training, or lapsed individual accountability will lead to liability. It is just as certain that if financial liability is the result of this poor judgement, sloppy training, or lapsed individual accountability and that departments will work hard avoid that liability and that individual officers will carefully consider their actions. Liability is the mechanism of accountability. Accountability is as critical to good government as personal responsibility is to being a good citizen.

The witness followed with a statement of how law enforcement was willing to work with the legislature to address any problems or questions they had with pursuits. After a second witness restated the same weak arguments and began to talk about how Law Enforcement would like to cooperate, Senator Gloria Romero broke in and related how a much less restrictive bill she introduced in 2003 was "stonewalled" by law enforcement despite repeated attempts to obtain their feedback and suggestions. She observed that the witnesses' statements of law enforcement cooperation were disingenuous at best. She further stated that there was no need for the 6 to 7 remaining opposition witnesses to rehash the previously stated testimony.

The next witness proposed a special fund, supported by insurance or tax dollars, to compensate victims. Senator Byron Sher remarked that the witnesses just didn't understand what this was all about. "It is not about compensation—it is about preventing needless deaths." After a few quick statements of non-support for the bill from more agencies and Law Enforcement organizations, including the California Attorney General, a representative of the Risk Management Pool spoke of the dire consequences of lifting Blanket Immunity-even in clearly defined circumstances.

After discussion and recommendations on the legal aspects of the bill, particularly about shielding individual officers from liability except in cases of gross misconduct. Senator Aanestad agreed that the concerns about individual liability were valid and should be addressed. The bill was held in committee until a vote on Tuesday, April 20th because of the absence of 2 of the committee members. It is anticipated that the bill will pass the committee and move to the Judiciary Committee.
Jim Phillips 4/17/2004