Hard and Fast
Minneapolis officials may be smarting from a spate of headlines about killer squad cars, but that apparently hasn't changed the city's attitude toward victims of police-related crashes. Just two weeks after promising to pay $600,000 to the families of two men killed during a police pursuit in November, city attorneys say they plan to fight claims related to another high-speed chase--even after losing the first round in court.
On the afternoon of August 11, 1996, Brian Feist was driving a '91 Lincoln Town Car east on Interstate 94 in Minneapolis when two cars came barreling down his lane in the opposite direction. The first vehicle had been reported stolen a few days earlier; the second was a Minneapolis squad, driven by officer Bradley Simonson. After a chase covering more than five miles of residential streets in the Phillips neighborhood, Shannon had turned onto I-94 in the wrong direction. As Simonson followed, Shannon swerved and hit Feist head-on, killing him instantly. Feist's mother Dorothy filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 1997 ("Speed Freaks," 11/26/97). On February 8, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery denied the city's request that the case be thrown out, saying that "in light of pre-existing law, [Minneapolis Police Department] pursuit-training materials and Simonson's own admission, Simonson knew or should have known the potential consequences of an extremely reckless police chase."
In response to the ruling, Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton on February 12 convened a special City Council meeting. Sayles Belton spokesperson Amy Phenix declined to comment on the case, saying that "it's city policy not to discuss legal strategy." But according to Feist attorney Eric Hageman, it is not hard to figure out what the city has in mind. "They are not interested in settling this case," says Hageman. "Last week, [city attorneys] filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals, and we believe they're going to fight this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Assistant city attorney Timothy Skarda calls the Feist incident "tragic," but defends the city's refusal to settle on the grounds of a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning high-speed police pursuits. In Sacramento v. Lewis, the Court held that police cannot be held responsible for the consequences of a chase unless plaintiffs prove that the officers acted with "deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person's right to life and personal security."
And Simonson, Skarda contends, can't be accused of having done that. The case, he says, is "factually different" from that of Steven Winkel and Jeffrey Carlson, the men with whose families the city settled on February 4. "Unlike the Winkel case, where the officer ran a stop sign without his lights or sirens, this one is a pursuit case with lights and sirens," he says. And while turning the wrong way onto a busy freeway may seem like a risky choice, he adds, "the way I read Sacramento is that since the decisions [made during a chase] are instantaneous, you don't second-guess them."
But Hageman argues that Simonson had plenty of time to assess the situation. "The chase went on for over six minutes. Every time he turned down another street, and particularly when he decided to enter the ramp on 94 going the wrong way, [Simonson] had the opportunity to call the chase off. And he didn't. He pursued Shannon in a manner clearly unjustified by any legitimate law-enforcement goal." Hageman notes that in a deposition for the case, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson acknowledged that such a chase represents "an inherently dangerous activity," and that catching a car thief "is not worth taking a citizen's life."
Metro-area police officials may soon have occasion for more soul-searching about officers and cars. Minneapolis is being sued by relatives of the two people killed when a police van lurched onto the sidewalk during the Holidazzle parade this December. Relatives of a woman killed during a high-speed chase near the Lowry Tunnel last July have not taken legal action, but news reports following the incident indicated they were talking to lawyers. And Robert Bennett, the lead attorney on the Feist case, is also handling a lawsuit against the Blaine Police Department on behalf of two men killed during a chase in 1995.
In all of those cases, critics have charged that Minneapolis and other cities need tougher guidelines and better training for officers involved in chases. Earlier this month Richard Stanek, a Minneapolis police officer and Republican state representative from Maple Grove, introduced a bill that would require officers to receive eight hours of pursuit training every two years. The measure also would call for the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Board to adopt a statewide chase policy balancing "the risks of engaging in a chase with the consequences of not doing so."
None of that, however, will slow down the city in its battle with Dorothy Feist, Skarda says. "There's a legal issue to consider here," he explains. "It's not fair, with a Supreme Court case on [the issue], to go ahead with a settlement."
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