When is a police officer pursuing a suspect?
It might seem like an easy question to answer. But lawyers and judges in three Maryland courts argued for four years over what that means — all because of a minor collision that occurred in 2006 involving a Baltimore police cruiser.
Maryland's Court of Appeals, with three judges dissenting, settled on a definition Tuesday: "There must be at a minimum movement by a suspect or violator of the law, and reactive movement by the officer to apprehend said individual."
Using those terms, the state's highest court concluded that Baltimore Officer Christopher John Schreyer was not engaged in a pursuit when he drove the wrong way down a one-way street to confront suspected drug dealers and ended up hiting another car.
That means Schreyer, a 12-year veteran of the force, can't claim immunity from civil liability. The ruling upholds decisions made by judges in district and circuit courts granting William Chaplain and Denise Webb-Cobb the $12,000 they won in a civil judgment.
Even though Schreyer was sued individually, the city will pick up the tab because it owns the vehicle. And lawyers on both the winning and losing sides said they didn't view this ruling as setting a broad precedent.
But the judges did set some limits on how and when police officers can claim immunity from negligent acts. Police can claim immunity when engaged in "emergency service," but the court ruled that lawmakers "certainly did not intend to convert all routine police officer investigations into 'emergency service.' "
Schreyer was patrolling Garrison Boulevard on Jan. 30, 2006 when he spotted men in an alley whom he suspected of dealing drugs. He testified at the civil trial that he saw "a bunch of individuals line up, and it appeared one individual was handing small objects to the people in the line."
The officer, without turning on his emergency lights and siren, made a U-turn and headed the wrong way on a one-way street, and hit a car driven by Chaplain. Schreyer testified that his actions were an attempt "to pursue the suspected violators, the suspect drug dealer."
Assistant City Solicitor Steven J. Potter argued that a pursuit is based on a "reasonable belief that a crime has been committed" and that Schreyer's observation "creates the emergency. … There is an exigency that the suspect's and their contraband or other evidence of illegal conduct will be lost unless the police pursue the suspects at the moment."
But judges in both the district and circuit courts, and now the Court of Appeals, disagreed, siding with the couple's attorney, who argued the suspected drug suspects were not running away. "They were just standing there," he said at trial.
That attorney, Barry J. Diamond, said Tuesday that the immunity clause for officers involved in pursuits was structured around "high-speed, lights and sirens" chases. Said the Court of Appeals: "If the word 'pursuing' is to have meaning, it cannot encompass every non-emergency situation in which a police officer patrols or undertakes to investigate suspicious behavior."
Lawyers on both sides referred to dictionaries to pursue definitions of "pursue." Three judges on the appeals court dissented, arguing that their colleagues read too literal a meaning into the word. They wrote that a "common sense" definition should include an officer trying to "overtake" a suspect.
The dissenting judges said immunity law was intended "to protect law enforcement officers from liability for negligent acts associated with split-second decision-making that accompanies the operation of an emergency vehicle in 'emergency service.'"
They said their colleagues' narrow interpretation would leave an officer liable for hitting someone while "pursing suspected bank robbers, even if, at the time the officer launched the pursuit, the suspects were standing still."
Diamond, the lawyer for the couple, said his clients would no doubt look forward to their settlement. But he said, "They have a hard time understanding how a small District Court case takes four years."