Changes to police pursuit liability discussed

Lawmakers considered a bill on general file Feb. 4 and 5 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 any 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.

“It is clear we need to define who should be considered an innocent third party rather than leaving it up to the courts to define in the absence of action by the Legislature,” he said. “Taxpayers of counties and cities should not continue to shoulder the burden of [large cash] settlements for people in fleeing vehicles.”

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 pending Judiciary Committee amendment would remove the exclusion of those subject to arrest and clarify the exclusion of those who have engaged in felonious conduct prior to entry into or onto the fleeing vehicle.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the bill. He said the focus of liability should be placed squarely on political subdivisions that allow law enforcement to engage in “inherently dangerous” police pursuits that can harm innocent bystanders.

“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.”

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.”

Chambers introduced a series of amendments and motions to extend debate on LB188 before the Legislature adjourned for the week.

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