Police Department Changes Policy after Wrongful Death Settlement
It feels really good to make a difference.
Settlement has recently been finalized in a wrongful death case that Butler Tobin and Justin T. Jones, PC handled arising out of a bad car chase in Metter, Georgia. The Metter police had conducted an unauthorized and unjustified high-speed chase of a driver whose only alleged ‘crimes’ were alleged traffic violations. Although the license plate of the vehicle had already been reported, the police chased the vehicle through town and by the city’s high school, reaching speeds of 110 miles per hour. Ultimately, the chased vehicle veered of the road and rolled over—killing a passenger who had nothing to do with the chase.
The passenger had committed no crime, and she had put nobody in danger. She left behind a minor daughter. We brought a wrongful death case against the police department on her daughter’s behalf.
From the beginning, we took a commonsense position: some high-speed chases are justified, and some are not. To tell the difference, an officer should consider what the other driver did wrong. If the driver had just committed a murder or violent crime, then the officer could be justified in chasing the driver at high speeds, because a murderer on the run poses a risk to other members of the community.
But if the driver being chased has committed only traffic violations, it isn’t worth a high-speed chase. The reason is that (as the Chief of the Metter Police Department eventually admitted under cross-examination) “a high speed chase can endanger the lives of others.” When the driver has committed only traffic violations, catching the driver right then and there isn’t important enough to risk a high speed chase.
From the beginning, we took a commonsense position: some high-speed chases are justified, and some are not. To tell the difference, an officer should consider what the other driver did wrong.
So here’s the bottom line: a police officer should balance the danger created by the chase against the importance of catching the driver. It’s the danger of the chase versus the danger of the man. It’s fine to chase murderers. But when there are passengers and other cars around, there’s no need to chase someone at high speed just because he rolled through a stop sign.
Now as our case winds down following a $525,000 settlement, the City of Metter has made a change. As reported by WTOC, the Metter Police Department has enacted a new policy that the police department says is about “changing with the times.” The police Chief—the same Chief that we cross-examined—told the news reporters that, “[i]t used to be, ‘chase them until the wheels fall off.’” But now, he says, “things like the severity of the suspect’s crime will go into whether [officers] chase or not.”
“It boils down to whether the need to capture somebody is greater than the risk they pose to the general public,” the Chief said.
You know what? That sounds a lot like our cross-examination of the Chief! Read a few excerpts from our cross-examination of him below, or see the full transcript here.
It’s a good day at Butler Tobin. We feel like this wrongful death case has made a difference — in two ways. First, the Metter Police Department has changed its policy in a way that is smarter and safer. Second, when the deceased’s daughter turns 18 and thinks about college, her trust fund will have plenty of money to send her there.
Below these excerpts from our cross-examination, you’ll find a copy of the WTOC news article (in case the link has been taken down by the time you read this).
Cross-Examination of the Chief of Police: