California High Court Clarifies Law Enforcement Vehicle Pursuit Immunity

The California Supreme Court recently delivered a decisive victory to law enforcement agencies regarding immunity from death or injury caused by a suspect vehicle in police pursuit. In Ramirez v. Gardena (2018 Cal. LEXIS 5750), the Court confirmed agencies do not have to prove 100 percent officer sign-off on an otherwise compliant pursuit policy in order to obtain immunity under Vehicle Code § 17004.7.

Irma Ramirez filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Gardena, Calif., alleging a Gardena Police Department officer acted negligently and committed battery when he used the pursuit intervention technique (PIT) on a vehicle her grandson was a passenger in.

The case hinged on section 17004.7 of the California Vehicle Code that limits an agency’s civil liability for damage or death caused by a suspect vehicle in a pursuit if the agency has adopted and implemented appropriate vehicle pursuit policies. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Gardena based on the immunity, but Ramirez appealed by arguing that Gardena couldn’t prove that 100% of their officers had signed off on the pursuit policy. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision found in favor of Gardena and the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on a very narrow issue: To be granted vehicle pursuit immunity, must a law enforcement agency prove all its officers have received, read and understand the agency’s policy? The short answer is “no”.

Requirements for Immunity
As an incentive for agencies to reduce pursuits, the California legislature provided law enforcement agencies with the ability to receive immunity for any injury, death or property damage caused by a suspect fleeing in a vehicle pursuit. However, to receive this immunity, agencies must meet certain requirements, including:
• The written policy must minimally address 13 subjects set forth in the statute. Note: Lexipol’s Vehicle Pursuit Policy exceeds this requirement.
• Agencies must provide officers with “regular and periodic” annual training consistent with POST guidelines outlined in Vehicle Code § 17004.7(d). Note: Agencies using Lexipol’s Daily Training Bulletins will exceed these requirements.
• Promulgation of the policy must include a requirement that all officers certify in writing they have received, read and understand the policy.

Policy Implications
The issue in the Ramirez case was whether merely having a vehicle pursuit policy that met the above requirements was sufficient, or whether the agency must also prove that every officer has in fact certified in writing they have received, read and understand the policy.

Upholding the appellate court, the Supreme Court took a literal approach that the statute only requires promulgation of the policy requirement, but is conspicuously silent on requiring proof that all officers have in fact provided written verification. While the Court could have ruled that written verification should at least be required from the involved officer(s), the Court instead recognized it would be unrealistic to deprive a large agency of immunity if 99 percent of its officers had complied, but 1 percent had failed to do so.

While this ruling is favorable to law enforcement and recognizes the challenges involved in promulgating policy, it is nevertheless critical for agencies to have in place a reliable mechanism to track and report officer acknowledgement of policies. Lexipol’s Law Enforcement Policy and Training Solution provides such capability.

Training Implications
As favorable as this ruling is, the Court declined to consider whether the annual training requirement of 17004.7(d) would require proof that every officer in fact received such training minimally meeting the POST requirements set forth in Penal Code § 13519.8.

Because this training requirement is not attached to any policy issue, agencies are strongly encouraged to separately ensure all officers receive and document such annual training. Again, agencies that subscribe to Lexipol receive training bulletins covering the necessary topics to meet the requirement, and can easily produce reports to show officers have completed training.

With ongoing attacks on the valuable immunity provided by California’s vehicle code—and public outcry increasing over police pursuits—diligent adherence to all aspects of this statute may keep your agency from being on the receiving end of the next lawsuit seeking to eviscerate pursuit immunity.

Bruce Praet

BRUCE PRAET is the co-founder of Lexipol and a partner with Ferguson, Praet & Sherman, a law firm with over 30 years of specializing in defending police civil matters such as shootings, dog bites and pursuits, while representing management in personnel matters. Bruce started his law enforcement career in 1973 as a police officer in Laguna Beach. In 1974, he moved to the Orange Police Department where he worked Patrol, Detectives, SWAT and K-9. After finishing law school, he went to work as an Assistant General Counsel to the Los Angeles Police Protective League and later served as an Assistant City Attorney for the City of Orange, exclusively handling police litigation. Bruce has been heavily involved with POST committees and curriculum and is a frequent presenter to federal, state and local law enforcement groups across the country.

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