California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of City of Gardena in Police Pursuit Immunity Case
Ruling Adopts Practical Standard for Law Enforcement Agency Immunity for Police Pursuits
Today, the California Supreme Court, in a highly anticipated decision in Ramirez v. City of Gardena, Supreme Court case number S244549, found in favor of the City of Gardena in a high profile police pursuit case.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, which will benefit governmental entities statewide, held that in order for immunity granted by Vehicle Code section 17004.7 to apply, law enforcement agencies must impose a requirement that all of their officers certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand the agency’s vehicle pursuit policy. However, agency immunity is not lost simply because some officers have not completed the certification or records are not available to prove 100% compliance. Under the Court’s ruling, immunity depends upon AGENCY compliance with the statute, not OFFICER completion of the certification mandate.
The Supreme Court accepted the argument by the City of Gardena, represented by Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester LLP, and a number of law enforcement agencies that submitted friend-of-the-court briefs, that obtaining certification from every officer by the date of a pursuit incident would impose an impractical and extremely onerous, if not impossible, standard on law enforcement agencies, some of whom have as many as 10,000 officers and all of whose officers may be unavailable to certify due to temporary absences for medical leave, family leave, administrative leave, military deployment, task force and undercover work, etc. The Court held that adopting a standard with which law enforcement agencies can reasonably comply serves the purpose of the statute to protect the public and officers by incentivizing law enforcement agencies to adopt and train their officers on safe vehicle pursuit policies. The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that if a single officer does not complete the certification, the agency loses immunity.
“We’re pleased the Supreme Court understood the untenable condition that requiring officer compliance rather than agency compliance would create, and we’re also pleased that the City of Gardena persevered to establish this clear standard for law enforcement agencies statewide,” said Ladell Hulet Muhlestein, a partner with Manning & Kass and lead appellate lawyer for the City of Gardena on the matter.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court after the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City of Gardena, finding that it satisfied the requirements of the immunity statute in a case involving a pursuit that occurred after armed robbery suspects fled when officers attempted to pull them over. The California Court of Appeal agreed with the City of Gardena, and disagreed with the San Diego Court of Appeal, which held in an earlier case that every officer must certify in order for an agency to obtain immunity, creating a conflict between the two Courts of Appeal. Because of the importance of the issue to all law enforcement agencies in the state, the City of Gardena took the unusual step of putting its victories in the courts below on the line and joining the plaintiff’s request urging the Supreme Court to review the case to resolve the conflict between the two Court of Appeal opinions and clarify the certification requirement.