When a cop chases a crook and kills an innocent bystander, who’s to blame?
WHEN THE U.S. SUPREME COURT ruled on the issue of high-speed police chases this May, lawmen everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. The justices decided that an officer cannot be successfully sued under the due-process clause of the Constitution for damages resulting from such pursuits, even if he was reckless, unless one can prove that the officer intended to cause harm. “The case greatly restricts, probably to the point of non-existence, the circumstances in which you can use a federal constitutional claim to recover for injury,” says Robert Dawson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The court’s decision did not come as welcome news to Johnnie Richter, a 54-year-old veterinarian from Rogers, who continues to ask, What is my wife’s life worth in the eyes of the law? On March 24, 1997, Richter’s wife, Cathy, a 50-year-old mother of four, left her daughter’s high school softball game in Salado and drove along FM 93, a four-lane highway with no divider. At 9:38 p.m., she was only ten miles from her home. Coming in the opposite direction at 115 miles per hour was Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Marlon Simonton, who was pursuing a speeding motorist; for reasons that remain unknown, he had an unauthorized passenger in his car, 20-year-old Keegan Nicole Reynolds, whom he had arrested earlier that month. As Simonton approached a bend in the road, his patrol car fishtailed and then slid across the center stripe, slamming into Cathy Richter’s half-ton pickup. Richter and Reynolds were killed instantly. Simonton suffered only minor injuries and was released from the hospital two days later.
Johnnie Richter filed suit against Simonton and the DPS in May 1997, but he has found that the law offers cold comfort. According to Texas’ Tort Claims Act, the state is liable for only $250,000 in damages—and now that the Supreme Court has reached its decision, the civil suit is his only recourse. Simonton was eventually recommended for dismissal for violating “certain DPS policies,” but Richter (whose case is ongoing) isn’t satisfied. “I think there is some negligence here,” he says. “I just don’t believe that one speeding violator was worth the lives of these two women. My family is owed a little more than what they are getting out of this deal.”
Though fatal accidents involving police vehicles are uncommon—in 1996 there were only eight—they’re still a real threat. In Dallas four people have died over the past five years in accidents in which police officers responded to calls without turning on their overhead lights. “We have challenged the city to require that officers use red lights and sirens whenever they are exceeding the speed limit in emergency cases,” says attorney Windle Turley, who represents the families of two teenage girls killed in such crashes. “The Supreme Court decision did not address in any way the responsibility of the state, municipality, or county government. It’s limited strictly to the potential responsibility of the individual officer.”
And that is a lamentable fact for Johnnie Richter, who hopes that eventually the law will change. “It’s not going to help my kids,” he says, “but maybe we can look at this and help someone else down the line.”