After prolonged debate, lawmakers gave first-round approval Feb. 10 to a bill that would lessen the liability facing the state and political subdivisions in the event of a police pursuit.
Currently, the state and subdivisions are held liable for the death, injury or property damage to an innocent third party caused by the action of a law enforcement officer during a vehicular pursuit. LB188, introduced by Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier, would exclude certain passengers from the liability protections.
Watermeier said legislation passed more than 30 years ago implemented the liability protections for innocent third parties. However, he said, questions about who is considered an innocent third party have been decided in court cases due to ambiguity in the original law.
“All this bill does is give the courts standards to consider in determining whether a passenger in a fleeing vehicle truly is an innocent third party and is eligible for automatic recovery [of damages],” he said.
The bill would exclude from liability protections any passenger who:
• enters into the vehicle without coercion knowing, or with a reasonable belief, that the driver of the vehicle is under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
• fails to take reasonable steps to persuade the driver to stop the vehicle;
• promotes, provokes or persuades the driver to engage in flight from law enforcement; and
• is subject to arrest or sought to be apprehended by law enforcement.
A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 42-2, removed the exclusion of those subject to arrest and clarified the exclusion of those who have engaged in felonious conduct prior to entering the fleeing vehicle.
Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner supported the bill, saying current protections are too broad.
“Some are innocent third party victims but some are just as guilty as the person driving the car,” Schnoor said. “There are people out there who are going to take advantage of the system to get some money.”
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the bill, saying it unfairly would place the burden of proof on individuals in the car.
“I want to go after those who make the decisions about what the police officers [are authorized] to do,” he said. “[I want to] place responsibility on the political leaders of whatever subdivision hired the offending officer. It would be up to those individuals to adopt policies that would restrict these chases.”
Chambers introduced a series of motions to extend debate on the bill.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln also opposed the bill. She said a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey showed 91 percent of all police chases are precipitated by nonviolent crimes.
“I’m not trying to be soft on crime and I don’t think we have to stop the police and handcuff them from doing their job,” she said, “but there is statistic after statistic about the ineffectiveness and danger of these high-speed chases.”
Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford also spoke against the bill.
“I can understand that someone who has been charged with felonies or is drunk may not be the most sympathetic character and a news write-up about their injuries being paid may not be popular,” Crawford said. “However, that person is still a human being and if they’re harmed when we’re pursuing public safety then that person is deserving of having their injuries addressed.”
After six hours of debate spanning three days, Watermeier introduced a motion to invoke cloture—or cease debate and force a vote on the bill—which senators approved on a 37-5 vote.
Senators advanced the bill to select file on a 34-6 vote.