Key Decisions

October 2013 – A Police Officer Was Immune From Suit

(filed under: Key Decisions | October 20, 2013)

A Police Officer Was Immune From Suit

Moreno v. Quemuel
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed September 17, 2013, published September 17, 2013

KEY FACTS

Rowell San-Luis Quemuel was a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. While driving a marked patrol car, he saw a motorist fail to obey a one-way street sign. Quemuel activated his red and blue overhead lights and pursued. The motorist pulled over to the curb. Quemuel opened his driver side door of the patrol car so he could exit the patrol car and make contact with the motorist. Mark Moreno, who was driving a motorcycle, collided into the car door.

Moreno sued Quemuel for negligence and negligence per se, alleging that Quemuel opened his door in violation of Vehicle Code Section 22517. That section states: “No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.”

Quemuel moved for summary judgment based on the argument that he was entitled to immunity under Vehicle Code Section 17004. The court granted his motion.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal affirmed. It held that when a peace officer opens his or her door as a precursor to exiting a patrol car and making contact with a motorist during a traffic stop, the peace officer is in “immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law” for purposes of the immunity set forth in Vehicle Code Section 17004.

The court rejected Moreno’s argument that pursuit means a chase, or at least a situation involving the purposeful movement of two vehicles.

While it might be argued that the pursuit was over once the offending motorist pulled to the curb, the court examined the history of Section 17004 and concluded that it was nonetheless intended to cover an officer exiting a patrol car to issue a citation.

Among other things, the court observed that:

On one hand, limiting “pursuit” to vehicular pursuit would potentially protect motorcyclists because officers would have incentive to be careful when they open their car doors. On the other hand, a motorist who has been stopped for a traffic violation might reverse into the police vehicle or have weapons. There might be dangerous conditions in the area. Because of these risks, it is important for an officer to freely use discretion when deciding where to place his or her attention during a traffic stop. For several reasons, we believe the better public policy is to allow the officer to focus on personal safety and the pulled over motorist. If we do not allow an officer discretion over such important job-related matters, an officer may compromise his or her safety or hesitate to enforce the law.

ANALYSIS

Although an officer who opened his door into a motorcyclist or bicyclist’s path may be immune from suit, if the officer was negligent, the injured party still has a remedy against the public entity that employed the negligent vehicle operator. Cal. Vehicle Code Section 17001.