Texas Supreme Court holds officer entitled to official immunity for turning on his lights.

 

City of San Antonio v Riojas, 20-0293 (Tex. Feb. 18, 2022)

The Texas Supreme Court held an officer who turned his lights on to warn motorists of a traffic slowdown was entitled to official immunity.

Officer Tristan noticed a traffic slowdown and turned on his lights to warn motorists behind him.  Tristan observed a white sedan cross multiple lanes of traffic and exit the expressway. Officer Tristan then pulled onto the shoulder and radioed another officer to stop the sedan for making an improper lane change. While these events were occurring, Armando Riojas was riding his motorcycle behind Officer Tristan’s vehicle but three lanes over and directly behind a car driven by Vela. When the car in front of her slowed, Vela braked in response. Riojas swerved to avoid a collision but lost control of his motorcycle. Witnesses accused Tristan of causing the crash, including accusing him of scaring everyone on the stretch of road by turning on his lights. Riojas sued the City, alleging that Officer Tristan was negligent in turning on his emergency lights.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and which the court of appeals affirmed. They determined Tristan was not entitled to official immunity. The City appealed.

Riojas concedes that by turning on his lights, Officer Tristan was performing a discretionary function within the scope of his employment. Riojas contends, however, that the City has not proven conclusively that Officer Tristan was acting in good faith. The need–risk assessment required for official immunity should not place an onerous burden on law enforcement.  Further, the need–risk balancing requirement does not go beyond the pursuit and emergency-response contexts.  The purpose for official immunity is most salient in the context of street-level police work, which frequently requires quick and decisive action in the face of volatile and changing circumstances. As a result, to be entitled to official immunity, Tristan had to only establish a reasonably prudent officer, under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed that his conduct was justified based on the information he possessed at the time. Riojas had to then show that no reasonable officer in Tristan’s position could have believed that the circumstances justified his conduct. Here, there was no suspect, no arrest, and no inherent danger to the public.  As this was not a pursuit case, the needs-risk analysis is not required or proper. Officer Tristian established his actions were reasonable and Riojas did not establish that no reasonable officer could have made the same call. As a result, Officer Tristan was entitled to official immunity as a matter of law, which in turn, removes the waiver of immunity from the City.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Chief Justice Hecht.