SAN FRANCISCO — Law enforcement officers are required to use “reasonable care” when making traffic stops, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The decision stems from a 1996 case in which four people were hurt after a pickup truck struck their car that a California Highway Patrol officer had ordered to stop in the median rather than on the right shoulder.
The family sued the driver of the pickup, the driver of the car, the CHP and the officer who stopped them.
A lower court dismissed the case, saying Officer Richard Hedgecock was not responsible for the crash that injured three young children and their father when the truck rear-ended the Toyota Camry. They were stopped in the median of six-lane state Highway 78 in San Diego County after a traffic stop. The driver had stepped out of the car and was unhurt.
The CHP Officer Safety Manual specifically says “effective techniques should be used to ensure stopping on the right shoulder rather than in the median.”
On the day of the accident, Michael Lugtu, the girls’ uncle, was driving the Camry about 85 mph in the far left lane. It was “dry, visibility was good and traffic was moderate to
fairly heavy,” according to
Hedgecock testified that CHP procedures gave him discretion whether to stop a driver in the median area or on the right shoulder.
He said he thought stopping the vehicle in the median, which was 10 feet wide, was safer than the shoulder, which was about eight feet wide.
The lower court agreed and dismissed the suit.
“Hedgecock had no duty to stop plaintiffs on the right shoulder as a matter of law,” the court said.
That decision was overturned Thursday by an appeals court, which reinstated the suit and said ”a law enforcement officer has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of those persons whom the officer stops. The case may now proceed.
“There was insufficient justification under the present circumstances for Hedgecock to subject plaintiffs to the risks inherent in such a stop,” said Chief Justice Ronald M. George writing for the 4-1 court.
In her dissent, Justice Janice R. Brown said the high court’s decision would likely cause more accidents than it prevents because it will reduce officers’ ability to use their own discretion and force them to make all traffic stops on the right shoulder, even when it may be safer to stop in the median.