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Innocent Motorist Killed During High Speed Police Chase in San Bernardino

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A 67-year-old woman killed in a car accident caused by a speeding suspect during a police chase in San Bernardino has been identified as Ruby Lene Johnson. According to this news article in the San Bernardino Sun, the accident occurred early morning on January 24, 2009 when police officers were chasing 20-year-old Jose Palacios. He was apparently a hit-and-run suspect who officers were pursuing. The chase reached speeds of up to 100 mph on city streets.

The officers were responding to a hit-and-run collision that occurred at Mount Vernon and Fifth Street. Palacio, who was trying to evade the officers, ran a red light and hit Johnson’s 1995 Toyota Camry at Base Line and Mount Vernon Avenue. Palacios was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and failing to stop for the police.

My heart goes out to the family of Ruby Lene Johnson, who was the tragic victim in this most unfortunate auto accident. I offer my deepest condolences to everyone who knew and loved Johnson.

I sincerely hope Jose Palacios is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no question here that Palacios put himself, his passenger and other motorists and pedestrians at risk, by driving recklessly and negligently. He also put the lives of our law enforcement officials at risk by leading them on this dangerous pursuit and refusing to stop. There is no doubt that Palacios must be punished.

However, the question we must all ask here is whether San Bernardino police did the right thing by getting involved in this San Bernardino high-speed chase? As residents of Southern California, we are in a sense, desensitized to high-speed pursuits. In fact, we even tune in to watch some of these police chases although it always has the same ending – with the suspect getting arrested or killed. But was it necessary for police in this case to chase Palacios, putting the lives of others such as Johnson at high risk? How serious was this other hit-and-run that Palacios caused? There is nothing in this news report that indicates someone was killed or even hurt in that other accident that triggered this deadly chase.

California law provides immunity to police departments that have adopted a “vehicle pursuit policy.” This is a written policy, which states that the department has rules and regulations when it comes to police pursuits and trains their officers periodically on these matters. Such police departments are immune from liability for civil damages for personal injury or death resulting from the pursuit to the suspect or to an innocent bystander. This law most likely protects the San Bernardino Police Department from liability. But it does nothing to protect the rights of the victim, in this case, Ruby Lene Johnson and her family. What kind of compensation can they hope to receive for their tremendous loss? Where can they find justice?

I understand that police officers need to get involved in these pursuits from time to time to apprehend dangerous suspects. In most of these cases, police officers do a commendable job. However, there needs to be a balancing test between the danger to the public and the requirement to apprehend a suspect. Our justice system should not allow officers to engage in high-speed chases without weighing the good that comes from catching a suspect against the safety of innocent bystanders who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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