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Senators wary of giving cops 'blanket' immunity in chases

Published February 12, 2014 9:39 am

Police liability • HB20 would set a new standard of 'malicious motive' on part of law officers.
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A Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday that would give police officers broad immunity from lawsuits by suspects injured in police chases, although several senators expressed reservations it gives officers too much protection and could encourage reckless behavior.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, questioned why officers who violate policy during police chases shouldn't be held accountable for injuries that may result and said HB20 gives police "a blanket of immunity as long as he's not out to try to kill somebody."

The measure stems from a Utah Supreme Court ruling in August, which held the family of teen-ager Wayne Torrie, killed in a 2010 chase with a Weber County sheriff's deputy, could sue the deputy for damages. The suit is still pending.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, who is the human resources director for Weber County, said police are called on to make instant life-and-death decisions and shouldn't have to have the fear of a lawsuit to contend with, as well.

Attorney Jim McConkie, who represents the Torrie family, said the current standard says officers are immune unless they act unreasonably. Under HB20, the officer would have to act maliciously with an intent to harm the suspect, and "that encourages a police officer to take risks they otherwise wouldn't."

McConkie showed video of another client who officers tried to stop for urinating on the side of the road. The man drove off, leading an officer on a low-speed chase. While the man was driving less than 3 mph, the officer stood in front of the vehicle, ordered the man to stop. When he did not, the officer shot the man three times, killing him.

The officer violated policies, McConkie said, and should be held liable, but that would be impossible under HB20.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, the co-sponsor of the bill, said it's absurd to think an officer who leads police on a chase could then sue the officer directly if the suspect is injured.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, said if the officer acted according to policies, that kind of suit would be easily defeated, but preventing people from filing those cases restricts a citizen's right.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-2 vote, based on the assurance from Dee and Weiler that they would work out changes to address the concerns from other members.