7th Circuit rules on police chase violations

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Police chases do not violate the Fourth and 14th Amendments when the officers involved do not intentionally and forcibly halt the fleeing subject, according to a ruling today by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case came out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division. It follows an April decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that gave police officers significant protection from lawsuits by suspects who lead them on car chases.

This 7th Circuit decision affirms the District Court's summary judgment in favor of the defendants in the combined appeal of Floyd Steen, personal representative of the estate of Brandon S. Hilbert v. Robert Myers, Brad Ridenour, and City of Portland, Indiana and Richard Philebaum and Teresa Philebaum, as legal guardians of Robyn A. Philebaum, and Robyn A. Philebaum, individually, v. City of Portland, Indiana, Portland Police Department, Robert Myers, and Brad Ridenour.  The court remanded the state law claims back to state court.

The plaintiffs in the combined appeal represent the interests of Brandon Hilbert and Robyn Philebaum. Hilbert was killed and Philebaum was severely injured after a high-speed police chase in which Myers pursued Hilbert's motorcycle.

Myers and Hilbert had a previous encounter in which Myers and another officer mistook Hilbert for an assault subject and held him at gunpoint until determining he was not the wanted suspect. Hilbert's relatives argue he was left in fear of Myers because of this and may explain why he fled.

Myers spotted Hilbert and Philebaum sitting on a parked motorcycle and suspected Hilbert was driving on a suspended license and had no motorcycle license. Once Myers received confirmation that Hilbert's license was indeed suspended and he did not have a motorcycle endorsement, he drove towards the motorcycle, and Hilbert and Philebaum fled. Myers pursued the motorcycle for several minutes at a high speed until the motorcycle went off the road at a sharp turn. Hilbert died and Philebaum was left seriously injured.

The plaintiffs brought suit in the state courts of Indiana, combining both the federal and state law claims. They appealed the District Court's ruling that summary judgment was appropriate with respect to Myers. The court cites County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998) as largely controlling. The Fourth Amendment seizure does not occur during a police chase unless an officer intentionally and forcibly halts the fleeing subject. The court cites Brower v. County of Inyo. The District Court ruled the argument Myers struck the motorcycle was "unsupported speculation" and the 7th Circuit agreed.

The appellants argue the history of antagonism between Myers and Hilbert should be considered; however, the court finds it would only allow an inference about whether a collision would have been intentional - and no evidence exists proving a collision.

Under the 14th Amendment, the District Court found Myers conduct did not rise to the level of shocking the conscience, which was established by the Lewis case.

"The question for us, therefore, is whether there is sufficient evidence of some intent to harm that goes beyond the traffic stop, the decision to pursue, and the decision to not terminate the pursuit at some point before the crash," Judge Kanne wrote. "We find no evidence of that intent."

Judge Kanne states the Supreme Court has set the bar very high in pursuing 14th Amendment claims that arise out of a police chase, and even if the court questions Myers was negligent, reckless, or deliberately indifferent, under standards set by Lewis, those questions are to be determined for state courts and the law of tort.


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