A police officer who caused a fatal accident by driving at reckless speeds to catch a driver for a routine traffic stop, and who later pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, cannot be sued by the surviving victim under a state-created danger theory—but the outcome will be different in similar cases going forward, a federal appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Tuesday held 2-1 that ex-Nesquehoning police officer Stephen Homanko was entitled to qualified immunity and could not be held constitutionally liable by the driver whose wife he killed, plaintiff Michael Sauers.
Third Circuit Judge Kent Jordan wrote in the court’s opinion that, as of May 12, 2014, when the accident occurred, the law in Pennsylvania was unsettled as to whether a police officer could be sued for state-created danger, arising out of the 14th Amendment, for injuries caused to a third party during a police pursuit.
“Assuming that a guilty plea to a state criminal statute is important in deciding whether the culpable conduct violated a clearly established right guaranteed by the United States Constitution … a conviction for reckless behavior does not help answer the issue in this appeal: namely, was the law settled in May 2014 that, absent a specific intent to harm, constitutional liability could be imposed on a police officer engaged in a police pursuit. We think it was not, and the sympathy we have for the victims of Officer Homanko’s serious error does not change that,” Jordan said.
However, Jordan said that, as a result of the Third Circuit’s ruling Tuesday, police officers would now be on notice that they can be held liable for constitutional claims if they are involved in high-speed chases.
“Police officers now have fair warning that their conduct when engaged in a high-speed pursuit will be subject to the full body of our state-created danger case law,” Jordan said. “That law clearly establishes that the level of culpability required to shock the conscience exists on a spectrum tied to the amount of time a government official has to act. In the police pursuit context, it is also necessary to take into consideration the officer’s justification for engaging in the pursuit. We recognize that most high-speed police pursuits arise when officers are responding to emergencies or when they must make split-second decisions to pursue fleeing suspects.”
He continued, “Our holding today does nothing to alter the longstanding principle that, in such cases, constitutional liability cannot exist absent an intent to harm. But when there is no compelling justification for an officer to engage in a high-speed pursuit and an officer has time to consider whether to engage in such inherently risky behavior, constitutional liability can arise when the officer proceeds to operate his vehicle in a manner that demonstrates a conscious disregard of a great risk of serious harm.”
Jordan’s majority opinion was joined in full by Judge Thomas Ambro.
Judge Thomas Vanaskie filed a concurring and dissenting opinion, agreeing with the clarification of the law going forward but arguing that Homanko should not be entitled to qualified immunity because “a reasonable officer in Homanko’s position would have known on May 12, 2014, that the outrageous conduct alleged in this case was unconstitutional.”
Joshua M. Autry of Lavery Law in Harrisburg represents Homanko and did not respond to a request seeking comment. Michael B. Kaspszyk of Merwine, Hanyon & Kaspszyk in Pocono Summit represents Sauers and did not respond to a request for comment.