When Officers Are Above the Law

The television news magazine  20/20 aired video footage last fall of North Carolina law enforcement officers speeding on Interstate 40 near Raleigh. Reporters followed the police vehicles to determine whether they were chasing a suspect, rushing to a crime scene, or otherwise involved in an emergency. None were. One officer drove directly to a doughnut shop.  Another, who was wearing a t-shirt with “Driving Instructor,” printed on the back drove to the Highway Patrol Training Academy.  A reporter confronted the officers as they emerged from their vehicles about the kind of example they were setting for citizens.  But, in addition to setting a bad example, were these officers also violating the law?  Or may officers in marked vehicles drive without regard to the rules of the road?

When the speed limit doesn’t apply.  G.S. 20-145 provides that the speed limitations in Chapter 20 do not apply to vehicles “when operated with due regard for safety under the direction of the police in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected or any such violation.” The statute similarly exempts from speed limitations vehicles of fire department and emergency vehicles when traveling in emergencies. The court of appeals has interpreted G.S. 20-145 as including “not only police in direct or immediate pursuit of law violators or suspected violators but also police who receive notice of the pursuit and respond[] by proceeding to the scene for the purpose of assisting in the chase or apprehension.”  State v. Flaherty, 55 N.C. App. 14, 22 (1981). Thus, this statute authorizes law enforcement officers to drive vehicles at speeds that exceed the otherwise applicable limit but only when they are chasing or seeking to apprehend suspects.

What about the other rules of the road? No other statute explicitly exempts vehicles operated by law enforcement officers from the rules of the road.  Yet common experience suggests there must be an exception.  Surely officers are allowed to change lanes without signaling, drive over medians, pass in no-passing zones, make unauthorized u-turns, and drive on the shoulder of the road when responding to an emergency and when such a maneuver can be safely made.

Common law exception. The North Carolina Court of Appeals in Collins v. Christenberry, 6 N.C. App. 504 (1969), recognized an exemption from otherwise applicable motor vehicle laws for law enforcement officers operating vehicles “with due regard for safety” in the chase or apprehension of suspects.  The court in Collins expressly rejected the defendant’s argument that the legislature’s enactment of the express exception in G.S. 20-145 evidenced its intent that no exemption applied for other provisions of the motor vehicle laws. See also Wade v. Grooms, 37 N.C. App. 428, 430-31 (1978) (“Defendant points out that plaintiff’s testimony indicates a violation of G.S. 20-146, pertaining to driving on the right side of the highway, and that such violation is negligence Per se. However, the principle urged by defendant is not applicable to law enforcement officers, who are not to be deemed negligent merely for failure to observe the rules of the road while engaged in the pursuit of lawbreakers.”) Thus, the mere fact that a law enforcement officer violates a rule of the road does not establish negligence for purposes of a civil injury claim, nor does it establish culpability for purposes of a criminal prosecution.

Standard of Care. The speed limit exception in G.S. 20-145 does not “protect the driver of a [speeding law enforcement] vehicle from the consequence of a reckless disregard of the safety of others.” The state supreme court held in Young v. Woodall, 343 N.C. 459 (1996) that this provision of G.S. 20-145 renders an officer liable in a civil action only for speeding that was grossly negligent.  Ordinary negligence does not suffice. The Collins court, in contrast, adopted an ordinary negligence standard for determining when an officer’s actions exceed the bounds of the common law exception from motor vehicle laws generally, noting that officers are required to exercise a “reasonable degree of care to avoid injury to other[s] who may be on the public roads and streets.” 6 N.C. App. at 509 (internal quotations omitted).

Criminal Prosecution. A law enforcement officer who violates the motor vehicle laws and who is not entitled to the aforementioned exemptions may be prosecuted for her conduct. The defendant-officer in such a case bears the burden of proving that the exception applies. See Flaherty, 55 N.C. App. at 22.  A Highway Patrol spokesman told 20/20 that an investigation had been launched into the driving by its instructor. There is no word on whether the driving instructor wound up in district court alongside alleged citizen-speeders.