6/5/2015New Mexico: Joyriding Traffic Cop Held Liable For Fatality
Federal appeals court says a joyriding police officer can be held liable for his red light running crash.
Some police officers see their "thin blue line" immunity from traffic tickets as a perk that comes with the job. It is not uncommon to see squad cars momentarily turn on their flashing lights to speed through a red light, only to have the lights turned off once they make it to the other side. On February 10, 2013, Albuquerque Police Sergeant Adam Casaus did not make it to the other side.
On Tuesday, the Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that Casaus will not enjoy any immunity for the conduct resulting in his police SUV slamming into another vehicle, killing Ashley Browder, 21, and gravely injuring her sister Lindsay. Though charged with felony homicide by reckless driving, a state court found him guilty of careless driving, a misdemeanor. The Browders went to federal court to sue for damages. The three-judge panel found his arbitrary actions involved a constitutional violation -- the deprivation of life -- under the color of law.
"He used his official squad car and activated its emergency lights and proceeded to speed through surface city streets at more than 60 miles per hour over 8.8 miles through eleven city intersections and at least one red light -- all for his personal pleasure, on no governmental business of any kind," Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court. "What's more, the New Mexico statute empowering police officers to speed and run red lights when pursuing a lawbreaker expressly states that it does not insulate an officer 'from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.'"
The appellate court dismissed the claim of immunity by Casaus, and a trial will have to decide to impose liability. The judges acknowledged that a jury might only find that Casaus was negligent.
"But on the facts pleaded a reasonable jury could infer something more, a conscious contempt of the lives of others and thus a form of reckless indifference to a fundamental right -- precisely the sort of mens rea Lewis says will normally suffice to establish liability," Judge Gorsuch wrote.
Casaus testified that he was pursuing a reckless driver when he sped through the intersection, and that this justified his conduct as "official business." The court pointed out that Casaus made no call to dispatch about any other car, as required by department policy. An eyewitness also contradicts the claim. A jury will have to resolve the dispute.
"We don't doubt the Browders have stated a plausible claim for relief," Judge Gorsuch wrote. "Indeed and again, we do not doubt that, when an officer uses his emergency lights on his business and not the public's and goes racing through traffic lights, a reasonable jury could conclude that his conduct amounts to an abuse of power; a demand that others get out of his way so he might pursue his personal business before they might pursue theirs."
In an unusual move, Judge Gorsuch wrote a separate concurring opinion to express his personal preference that state, not federal, courts handle such cases.
The decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.