Bill says if Utah police give chase, they aren't responsible for suspect's accident
Wayne Torrie was upset after his schoolmates had bullied him, so he took off with the family sport-utility vehicle without permission.
Worried, Wayne's mother Raeghn Torrie called 911 to find her son. An officer did, but that's when Wayne texted his mother that he would rather flee and risk hurting himself than go to jail, which she relayed to the police, according to a wrongful death lawsuit she later filed against the Weber County Sheriff's Office.
The boy sped off with the officer on his tail, and during the 90-mph chase, his SUV rolled and he died.
A 2nd District Court judge ruled against the 2010 lawsuit, deciding the officer owed no duty of care to Wayne. Raeghn Torrie intends to have the case heard before the Utah Supreme Court, but a Utah senator inspired by the lawsuit wants to make sure law enforcement are immune from such litigation.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is sponsoring SB149 this session, which would protect officers and their agencies from litigation when the people they pursue hurt or kill themselves in the process. Adams said he cringes when he hears such stories, as "sobering" and emotional as they are, but he believes officers should be able to do their jobs without worrying about going to court over tragedy that the suspects might bring upon themselves.
He added that the bill would not protect officers from violating a suspect's Constitutional Rights, and the bill's reach ends when the pursuit does.
But SB149 gives Jim McConkie, who is representing the Torrie lawsuit, pause.
"That we would create on earth what we see in the movies is utter madness," McConkie said. "The policy has been in the U.S. and Utah that if you have a person who is not an immediate threat to society, like a drug dealer or vicious serial killer, if they're not an immediate threat then you pick them up later if you know who they are."
Raeghn Torrie argued in her lawsuit that had the officer followed the county's policy of chasing only dangerous criminals, her son would still be alive. The court disagreed.
But the officers still have to follow the law in their pursuit the bill doesn't change that, Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe pointed out. Keefe, who supports the bill, is also the president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.
"It's difficult to control, obviously, the operations of the other vehicle," he said.
The bill has been delayed for two weeks a committee has yet to vote on it as Adams works on the bill in light of concerns that have been raised. Adams noted that he had met with Raeghn Torrie and McConkie. He has already removed a section that would have also made law enforcement immune to injury or death that befalls bystanders.
The Utah Association for Justice, an organization representing trial lawyers, also has been working with Adams on the bill before it's voted on, said executive director Jennifer Dailey. The group is troubled that the bill might encourage law enforcement to handle every pursuit the same way, when not everyone they're chasing should be assumed to be a dangerous criminal, she said.
"We oppose any blanket immunity," Dailey said. "We understand police officers have a very difficult job, but even if a suspect is fleeing a police officer, they can't be assumed to be guilty of any crime."
As much as officers train, they still find themselves in moments that are hard to predict the outcome, Adams said. Though as McConkie sees it, that same training should keep such tragedies like Wayne's from happening in the first place.