COVID-19 UPDATE: We are open! Our team is working and offering consultations via phone, e-mail, and video conferencing.

Worth the Risk? The Dangers of High Speed Chases

Craig McClellan

High speed chases often end only when the suspect crashes and can no longer flee. While some crimes might be so serious that apprehending a fleeing subject through chase is necessary, in many situations, it is often better to avoid a dangerous and chaotic chase on city streets. Instead of running the risk of unnecessary severe or fatal injuries to bystanders, police sometimes have the option to wait to make a safer arrest. Whether or not high-speed chases are an appropriate response to a crime remains in question.

A Tale of Two Chases

In one week, San Diego watched as two high speed police chases resulted in very different outcomes. The first chase took place Monday evening when San Diego police saw a driver run a red light. They tried to stop the car but the driver tried flee, getting onto nearby I-805 and weaving through heavy traffic at speeds above 100 miles per hour. When the driver tried to exit I-805, he caused a serious car wreck by crashing into three other vehicles. The wreck injured five people and responders had to cut one person out of a ruined car.

A second chase happened the next morning and had a very different outcome. San Diego police noticed a stolen car and tried to stop the driver at a gas station. The driver took off, again trying to outrun the police on city streets. At one point in the chase, he rammed a police car. In this chase, however, the police realized the public danger as the driver repeatedly blew through stop signs and red lights with little regard for safety. Officers called off the pursuit because it was too dangerous and unpredictable. Nevertheless, officers still caught and arrested the driver a little later with no injuries or fatalities to innocent bystanders.

Sovereign Immunity in High Speed Car Chases

When a government entity's conduct causes an injury to a private citizen, recovery often depends on a concept known as "sovereign immunity." Traditionally, state and local governments had this immunity and it prevented private citizens from suing the government—no matter what it did wrong. Most states have changed this by enacting laws to give citizens the right to sue them in certain situations.

If a specific kind of accident or injury is not included in the statute, immunity still applies. Sometimes a citizen can sue a police department and the municipality responsible for their damages. In the state of California however, police departments are granted almost complete immunity in pursuit situations.