14th Court of Appeals holds police officer is entitled to official immunity in police chase case after providing detailed affidavits.

City of Houston v. Paula Collins,14-16-00449-CV (Tex. App— Houston [ 14th Dist.] January 31, 2017)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act vehicle accident case involving official immunity where the 14th Court of Appeals reversed and rendered the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Houston Police Department Officer James Brown responded to a dispatch for assistance where another officer was pursuing a motorcycle whose driver was standing up, driving recklessly and traveling at a high rate of speed. Collins’s vehicle exited a parking lot and turn right onto the road in front of Officer Brown. She then changed lanes into the left lane, then back to the right lane in front of Brown. Brown struck Collins’s vehicle while attempting to go around. Collins sued claiming Brown recklessly operated his vehicle. The City filed its first plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted but the 14th Court of Appeals reversed noting the record did not contain sufficient evidence to establish Brown’s good faith immunity. On remand, the City filed a second plea with new evidence which the trial court denied.

In the first appeal the 14th Court of Appeals held the City established Brown was acting in the course and scope of his employment and was performing discretionary actions. It remanded based on a lack of record evidence that no reasonable officer would have acted the way Brown did under similar circumstances. For this appeal, the court held the officer must assess “both the need to which an officer responds and the risks of the officer’s course of action, based on the officer’s perception of the facts at the time of the event.” The City’s second plea produced various affidavits from officers and dispatchers. The supervising sergeant on duty who overheard the radio exchange regarding the pursuit noted the pursuing officer had stress and urgency in his voice, made it clear the suspect was not stopping and endangering lives, and that a reasonable officer would conclude an emergency existed.   Various officers provided affidavits that such situations require immediate responses from law enforcement for the safety of motorists and the public. The circumstances reasonably qualify as evading arrest which is a state jail felony under §38.04 of the Texas Penal Code. The Court of Appeals went into specific detail regarding the testimony supporting each of these statements. The Court felt it was important to note the affidavits proffered by the City in support of the first plea stated that the suspect evaded arrest; they did not explain how a reasonable officer could have determined from the radio broadcast that the suspect was fleeing. The evidence for the second plea provided a great deal more detail and specific evaluations which go through an officer’s mind. The Court analyzed the “need” and “risk” assessment under the detailed statements and what alternative actions Brown could have used.  In response to Collin’s assertions that the new affidavits are conclusory because they analyze things differently than the first set of affidavits, the Court held “[t]he new affidavits do not change the underlying factual assertions, but instead provide additional context to explain Officer Brown’s response considering what he reasonably understood to be the situation. The new affidavits were substantiated with facts showing that Officer Brown assessed the need for his response against the risks to the public” and “provide[d] the missing link explaining that reasonable officers” mindset.  After going through the analysis, the Court held the City established Officer Brown was entitled to official immunity. Therefore, the City’s plea should have been granted. Reversed and rendered.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The Panel includes Justice Boyce, Justice Christopher and Justice Brown. Justice Boyce delivered the opinion of the court. Attorney for the City is listed as Fernando De Leon. Attorneys for Ms. Collins are listed as Russel T. Jackson, Les Cochran and William R. Edwards, III.

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