Imagine this situation. A tragic car collision injures Michael Sauers and kills his wife. The injuries and death result from the “criminally reckless driving of police officer Stephen Homanko,” but the police officer walks away from any civil liability for money damages to the family he killed and injured. How could such a thing happen?
On May 12, 2014, Sauers and his wife were driving on the road, minding their own business. Officer Homanko was on patrol, when he saw a yellow Dodge Neon commit a summary offense. The police officer chased down the driver at speeds of 100 miles per hour, even though the police officer called ahead to the jurisdiction in which the speeder was traveling so that the municipality into which the speeder was headed could stop the driver. During his pursuit, the police officer lost control of the police car while going around a curve. He crashed into the Sauers’ car, causing injuries and death.
It seems like a no-brainer: The three-panel U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in a 2-1 decision that the complaint against the police officer stated a plausible case for a state-created danger. The government, ruled the court, has an obligation under the 14th Amendment to due process clause “to protect individuals against dangers that the government itself creates.” The action of the state actor must “shock the contemporary conscience.” After going through the “shock-the-conscience” test, the court found that the trial court, the U.S. district court, rightly interpreted the complaint to allege that the police officer had at least some time to deliberate before deciding whether and how to pursue the traffic offender. In other words, the police officer demonstrated a conscious disregard of a great risk of serious harm.
Even though the police officer acted with criminal recklessness, causing the death of an innocent motorist, the court was then required to determine whether the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity. In order to prevail on a claim against the police officer, it must be shown that the law is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” In other words, did the police officer know in 2014 that he was doing the wrong thing? The court ruled that “An officer on patrol in May 2014 could have reasonably understood, based on prevailing law, that he could pursue a potential traffic offender, even recklessly, without being subjected to constitutional liability.” This remarkable conclusion, which itself shocks the conscience, was reached by Third Circuit Judge Kent Jordan, joined by Judge Thomas Ambro. After reviewing the case law in the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth circuits, the two-judge majority concluded that it could not conclude that the case law by May 2014 had clearly established that an officer’s decision to engage in a high-speed pursuit of a suspected traffic offender could, in the absence of an intent to harm, give rise to constitutional liability.
The year 2014 does not sound like the stone age, but apparently that was too long ago for this court. Of slim comfort to the injured and deceased is that the two-judge majority ruled that 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.”
Judge Thomas Vanaskie dissented from the logic that Officer Homanko was entitled to qualified immunity. Vanaskie assessed the case law and reached a different conclusion on the qualified immunity test. “In my view, qualified immunity should not be granted here simply because there is little case law imposing liability on a police officer who drives his cruiser at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, in a nonemergency situation.” Vanaskie read the other circuit court decisions as representing differing factual patterns. Cases in other courts where police officers were entitled to qualified immunity frequently involved emergency situations. In the case before the Third Circuit, Sauers v. Nesquehoning, the Judges all agreed that the police officer was not involved in an emergency situation. “The unconstitutional nature of Homanko’s actions, placing a substantial risk to those traveling a two-lane, undivided highway in recklessly criminal pursuit of an unsuspecting motorist for a minor traffic infraction, was clearly established when he slammed into the Sauers’ vehicle, mortally injuring Mrs. Sauers and severely injuring her husband.”
This is a case that needs to be reviewed by the court en banc. The entire courts of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court needs to look at this case to see that Justice is done.
Cliff Rieders, of Rieders, Travis, Humphrey, Waters, & Dorhmann, is a board-certified trial advocate in Williamsport, past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. Contact him at email@example.com.