Experts shed light on policies regarding high-speed chases: 'Who are they going after?'

Sean Coffey Image
Wednesday, May 15, 2024
High-speed chases: Legal, law enforcement experts discuss policies
ABC11 is digging deeper into when officers are allowed to chase, and the laws protecting both those officers and innocent bystanders.

NORTH CAROLINA (WTVD) -- In the wake of two high-speed chase crashes in central North Carolina on Monday -- one in Cary and the other in Cumberland County -- ABC11 is digging deeper into when officers are allowed to chase, and the laws protecting both those officers and innocent bystanders.

ABC11 obtained both the Wake County Sheriff's Office and State Highway Patrol chase policies -- the two agencies involved in Monday's crashes. The first high-speed chase occurred in Cary when Wake County Sheriffs' deputies sped after a suspected carjacker. The second chase happened in Spring Lake when state troopers also tried to apprehend a suspect in a vehicle theft.

"I think it does all come down to who are they going after. Is it, you know, the bank robber who shot somebody with a gun and there's an interest in stopping them? Or is it somebody that went through a school zone going ten miles an hour over the limit," said Forest Horne, a Senior Partner at Martin & Jones who's litigated these types of cases for more than 30 years.

Horne said he believes that high-speed chases should be reserved for apprehending the most dangerous criminals, and when there's a great threat to the public. But should a chase go wrong and injure bystanders -- as was the case in the Spring Lake chase on Monday -- proving an officer had a lapse in judgment is not enough to bring a civil case.

"To prevail in a claim for injuries due to a police chase gone wrong, you would have to prove that the officer, by his conduct, was grossly negligent. And that's a much higher standard," said Horne.

Both the Wake County and SHP policies on vehicle pursuits are built around the discretion of the officer involved in the case, and green-light a chase should "the member determine that such need for the response outweigh the danger created". They also note that officers "shall constantly evaluate his/her decision to continue a pursuit" based on the external factors at the time.

"You certainly have to balance the severity of the offense, the conduct of the person you're chasing or pursuing and you know, the terrain traffic pedestrians, weather, all kinds of things," said Eddie Caldwell, Executive Vice President of the NC Sheriffs' Association.

Caldwell helps represent and provide counsel for all 100 sheriff's offices statewide and said the law is there to protect officers because lawmakers understand the pressures inherent in the job -- and that it's not always an exact science.

"Courts over the years and the Congress and the legislature have recognized that law enforcement is a dangerous profession and that apprehending suspects is a dangerous responsibility that is not performed in a classroom environment," he said.

ABC11 also learned that bystanders injured in a chase can only take civil action against municipalities that have purchased insurance, which most larger municipalities like Raleigh and Durham have. But if someone is injured in a chase in a smaller town or municipality that does not have that insurance, the officer involved is immune. State-level cases are brought differently and appear before the North Carolina Industrial Commission.

VIDEO: High-speed chase ends with wild crash involving several cars

The engine block from the suspected stolen vehicle landed in a parking lot nearly 100 yards from the crash scene in Spring Lake.

SEE ALSO | Man charged with leading state troopers on multiple high-speed chases arrested at work

SEE ALSO | 13-year-old stole vehicle, led investigators on a high-speed chase that ended in Raleigh: Deputies