Around dusk on December 21, 1999, officer Michael Tolbert of the City of Ellisville police department was on patrol when he spotted Joe C. Evans, Jr., driving a vehicle in the opposite direction. Aware of outstanding warrants for Evans, Tolbert made a u-turn, activated his blue lights and siren, and pursued Evans. Evans proceeded to leave the city limits of Ellisville, while heading northbound on Highway 29, with officer Tolbert in pursuit.
Tammy W. Richardson was also driving northbound on Highway 29. As she began to make a left hand turn into a residential driveway crossing the southbound lane of Highway 29, Evans crashed into her while passing other northbound traffic. In the car with Tammy was her minor daughter, Shana. Tammy was transported first to South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel, and then to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, where she was admitted for six days, and then discharged. She was soon readmitted for three additional days.
At trial, Tolbert testified he began working for the Ellisville Police Department in November of 1998. Although he never received training for “hot” pursuits, he was trained in high speed vehicle driving, and he had studied the department’s pursuit policy.
Tolbert testified regarding Evans’s history with local law enforcement prior to the accident. Approximately one month before the accident, on November 17, 1999, he sought to execute an arrest warrant on Evans at Evans’s residence at which time Evans started a fight with officer Tolbert and another officer. During the fight, Evans bit Tolbert and fled the scene. Tolbert filed charges against Evans for assaulting an officer. At the time of the pursuit, there were outstanding warrants for Evans’s arrest.
Officer Tolbert testified that he saw Evans at an intersection. Tolbert made a u-turn and turned on his lights and then his siren as the chase began. Tolbert testified:
Q. As you pursued Evans’s vehicle northbound on Highway 29 were there any vehicles that got in between you and Mr. Evans’s vehicle?
A. Yes, Sir.
Q. Can you tell the judge how many?
A. Five or six.
Q. Five or six?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And what did those vehicles do?
A. They continued traveling north on 29. I think there was one or two of them that pulled over and let me get around, but most of them didn’t. And he passed most of them.
Q. As a matter of fact at the point of the collision. There were four vehicles between – behind Mrs. Richardson’s vehicle after you turned on the highway. Would that be a fair statement?
A. I believe it would be, yes sir.
Q. And two you said pulled off on the right-hand shoulder and let you by them?
A. I am guessing. There were some that pulled over and it was about two of them. I don’t remember exactly how many there was. I don’t remember exactly how many was between us.
Q. Okay. But suffice it to say, you didn’t have a clear – it wasn’t a clear line between you and Mr. Evans. You had the blue lights on. You had the siren on. There were vehicles in between. He got vehicles in between you. And you were still pursuing, right?
A. Could you repeat the first part?
Q. Yes, sir. There wasn’t a clear line between you and Mr. Evans because he got vehicles in between you and him; is that correct?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. As you proceeded north, did you encounter other cars ahead of you in the northbound lanes of traffic?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. What did Mr. Evans do?
A. Passed them.
Q. Officer Tolbert, why did you not go out into the northbound lane and follow Mr. Evans?
A. There was on-coming vehicles.
Officer Tolbert also completed an Offense Form, dated December 21, 1999, which was introduced into evidence, that Evans was “running oncoming traffic off the road” and that the Evans’s vehicle passed several vehicles before striking the truck on the side. Officer Tolbert also admitted that both he and Evans were exceeding the posted speed limit.
A witness, Bobby Reynolds, testified that he was standing out in his driveway at around 7:15 p.m., when he saw the police car go by with the lights on and the siren blowing. Reynolds stated that the accident occurred within 15 seconds from the time they passed his driveway. He was approximately 600 feet from the scene of the accident and heard, but did not see, the collision.
Reynolds testified: the pickup truck was hit hard in the left, the driver’s door, and right behind in the bed of the truck, the bed of the truck and the camper hull that was on the truck was laying across the top of the gas meter that was sitting those (sic) people’s yard. The truck was sitting off in the ditch above the driveway that it was going to, and the other car was sitting in the ditch above the driveway.
The trial court found that the officer was in reckless disregard. MSC affirmed.
Immunity afforded under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA) does not apply if the employee acted in reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of any person not engaged in criminal activity at the time of the injury. In Johnson, MSC enumerated 10 factors to support a finding of reckless disregard in connection with police pursuits as follows:
1. The length of the chase
2. Type of neighborhood;
3. Characteristics of the streets;
4. The presence of vehicular or pedestrian traffic;
5. Weather conditions and visibility;
6. The seriousness of the offense for which the police are pursuing the suspect;
7. Whether the officer proceeded with sirens and blue lights;
8. Whether the officer had available alternatives which would led to the apprehension of the suspect besides puruit;
9. The existence of police policy which prohibits pursuit under the circumstances; and
10. The rate of speed of the officer in comparison to the posted speed limit.
Additionally, the City of Ellisville had a Pursuit of Motor Vehicle policy which enumerates that an officer must ask himself before initiating a fast pursuit such as:
1. Does the seriousness of the crime committed, or being committed, warrant a high speed chase at unsafe speeds?
2. What is the probability of apprehending the fleeing person?
3. Will the pursuit take place on residential streets, in a business district, or on a freeway? What is the danger to other innocent citizens in these areas?
4. What are the traffic and weather conditions?
5. What is the condition of the police cruiser? How are the tires, brakes, steering, etc.?
The facts of our case are analogous to MSC Brister, 838 So. 2d 274 (Miss. 2003), where this Court held that there was substantial evidence to support a finding of reckless disregard. In Brister, police pursued an unknown suspect who had been accused of check forgery. The pursuit in Brister lasted less than 60 seconds over a distance of less than a mile in a residential area and resulted in the suspect’s crash with another vehicle. In Brister the trial court based its findings on various factors including that, the chase was contrary to a police department’s general order, the officers were engaged in active pursuit up until the collision, the pursuit should have been terminated after the officers realized the suspect would not stop, and that the officers did not properly balance the public’s safety versus immediate apprehension of a check forger.
The trial court in this case considered ten factors as enumerated in Johnson in support of its finding of reckless disregard. It is appropriate for trial courts to consider all ten factors, and to look at the totality of the circumstances when analyzing whether someone acted in reckless disregard. The evidence in this case reveals that the chase lasted for nine-tenths of a mile, occurred at night, in a residential area on a hilly, curvy, two-lane road with medium levels of traffic. The officer traveled this road frequently and had prior knowledge that it was a residential area and continued to pursue Evans after Evans had run oncoming traffic off the road. The officer was not in pursuit of an unknown suspect. In fact, the officer had previous encounters with Evans, knew where Evans lived, knew Evans’s mother, and knew that Evans was likely to try to avoid arrest which he did even after colliding with the Richardson’s vehicle. Nevertheless Tolbert elected to continue the pursuit while Evans weaved in and out of traffic at excessive speeds and endangered the safety of innocent citizens.
Evans’s outstanding warrants included misdemeanor charges and one charge for assaulting an officer, as a result of Evans’s biting Tolbert’s hand during Tolbert’s last unsuccessful attempt to arrest Evans. Tolbert testified that he did not know if Evans had been charged for a felony or misdemeanor. There was also testimony to establish the fact that the officer proceeded with his sirens and flashing lights up until the time of the accident, that he was driving in excess of the speed limit, and that there were at least four cars between the officer and Evans at the time of the accident. Evans passed approximately six vehicles, including those four, all within a chase that lasted less than one mile, and Tolbert continued the pursuit until the point of impact.
Furthermore, there was ample evidence to support violations of the City of Ellisville’s Pursuit of Motor Vehicles policy. The chase was not the result of a serious crime being committed at the moment. The two vehicles were exceeding the speed limit in a residential neighborhood, in the dark, with a low probability of apprehending the suspect, as he was known to flee and had successfully fled in the past.
The City of Ellisville’s Pursuit of Motor Vehicles Policy requires officers to weigh the seriousness of the offense against the hazards present to innocent citizens who may become involved and to continually ask this question as the chase continues. The policy also requires officers to immediately terminate a fresh pursuit whenever safety of innocent citizens outweighs the danger to the community if the suspect were not immediately apprehended. This policy was clearly violated, as it was in Brister, where this Court found that the officers did not properly balance the public’s safety versus immediate apprehension of the suspect.
This Court in Brister found that, the circuit judge clearly based his findings on substantial, credible, and reasonable evidence. Applying our appropriate legal standard and recent caselaw, that is all that is necessary. Applying this precedent, as this Court is required, there is substantial and credible evidence to support a finding of reckless disregard in this case. This issue is without merit.