Law enforcement pursuits in central North Carolina draw attention to policies, bystander safety

Michael Perchick Image
Tuesday, June 4, 2024
Police pursuits draw attention to policies, bystander safety
While bystanders injured in such chases can pursue civil damages, they face challenging circumstances in North Carolina.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Holly Loftis was inside her home along US 501 in Person County on Monday afternoon when she heard a nearby street mentioned on her scanner.

"I came to my front door and by that time I'd seen (the vehicle) come rolling by with the officer behind him and then I heard a big boom, like bang. So, I walked out and the truck was rolling and the car had went down in the ditch," Loftis said.

Person County Sheriff Jason Wilborn told ABC11 that it started when a driver pulled out of a nearby convenience store and nearly caused an accident. A deputy in the area tried to initiate a traffic stop, but the suspect drove off, leading to a pursuit that Wilborn said lasted less than two miles. The suspect's vehicle collided with a bystander's vehicle just before the Boston Road intersection, in which the suspect was ejected from the vehicle. As of Monday night, authorities have not released the names of either the suspect or bystander involved in the crash, though both were taken to a hospital.

The crash came just a day after a deadly pursuit in Wake County, in which an 18-year-old driver was reportedly driving 115 mph in a 70 mph zone on I-540 near Louisburg Road. Authorities said he ignored stop signs and crossed into oncoming traffic as he attempted to evade officers. After running a red light, he struck another vehicle traveling east on Zebulon Road near Louisburg Road and died from his injuries. The other driver was taken to WakeMed with what were described as non-life-threatening injuries.

"I can tell you with an ongoing pursuit, a continuing violation -- reckless driving, suspected impaired driving -- the continued danger to the public...the decision was made for deputies to continue to pursue," Lt. Mike Fleer said.

These cases follow law enforcement pursuits in Lillington and Cumberland County, part of a pattern that has drawn attention. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 390 people in the state have died in crashes involving police pursuits between 1982 and 2020.

"There's no doubt that police officers have an extremely difficult job. That's why most of the policies say that you're only supposed to initiate these chases under very extreme circumstances (such as) somebody's got a gun and they're shooting at people, (a suspect) robbed a bank, something like that. What happens is those rules get disobeyed, or they engage in chases where they get authorization from their department in situations where there is no danger to the public," said Gary Mauney, a law partner with Mauney PLLC.

While bystanders injured in such chases can pursue civil damages, Mauney said they face challenging circumstances.

"Our appellate courts have interpreted the gross negligence standard as basically a "get-out-of-jail-free" card if you will, for police officers that are not even following their own policies," said Mauney.

Mauney pointed to other states that have altered their gross negligence standard, making it easier for victims to move forward with cases.

"The cities and municipalities out there need to start taking responsibility when their officers don't follow their own policies," he said. "The cities that can waive immunity through the paths that the legislature has allowed, they need to do that and then they need to make it meaningful."