Court: No immunity for Crookston cop after squad stolen

A police officer jumps out of his squad car to detain a suspect. He leaves his squad car unlocked and running, given the situation. The suspect eventually jumps into the police vehicle, takes off, crashes into another car, killing its driver and seriously injuring its passenger.

Is the police officer liable for the death and injuries?

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals refused to provide immunity to Crookston, Minn., police officer Don Rasicot, who is being sued by the widow of Eddie Briggs, who was killed when suspect Richard Mello crashed the police car in September 2011.

Patricia Briggs alleges negligence, wrongful death, and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Rasicot and the city of Crookston, because a city ordinance makes it unlawful to leave a vehicle running when unattended.

Minnesota law provides immunity to a public official who is charged by law with duties calling for the exercise of his judgment or discretion from being held personally liable for damages unless the official acted willfully or maliciously.

But the Court of Appeals turned aside Rasicot’s assertion that he is immune from the civil suit, saying he should’ve known the Crookston laws.

It said he wasn’t in pursuit, because he and another officer were closing in on the suspect in a bar and he hadn’t yet fled.

“Officer Rasicot was investigating a damage-to-property complaint and there is no evidence that anyone was in immediate danger,” Judge Michael Kirk wrote in today’s decision (pdf).

He did not activate the lights or sirens of his vehicle when responding to Officer Bergquist’s request for backup, which is clearly required by police department policy when responding to an emergency.

Only after Officer Rasicot parked his squad vehicle, leaving it unattended with the engine running, entered the bar, and confronted Mello did the situation develop into an emergency.

Judge Kirk also ruled that the city of Crookston is not immune from the lawsuit.