Substantive Due Process at Conscience-Shocking Speeds (Sitzes v. City of West Memphis Arkansas)

For those of you who practice criminal law, or are exposed to criminal cases, or took Criminal Law in law school, consider this set of facts:

In traveling to Wal-Mart, John Smith drove north on Rich Road, aresidential street with a posted speed limit of 30 m.p.h. Witnesses estimated that John Smith was traveling at 80-90 m.p.h., well above the posted speed limit.  As he approached theintersection of Rich Road and Arlington Road, John Smith was traveling in the southbound (opposing) lane of traffic, attempting to pass cars traveling northbound.  At the intersection of Rich and Arlington Roads there are no stop or yield signs fordrivers on Rich Road, but there are stop signs for drivers on Arlington Road.
Unfortunately, at the same time, Brittney Sitzes was also driving north on Rich Road ahead of John Smith, with her younger sister Shelby in the passenger seat.   As Brittney approached the intersection with Arlington Road, she slowed and began to make a left-hand turn onto Arlington Road. As John Smith entered the intersection, he struck the driver’s side of Brittney’s car as she executed her turn. Brittney was killed in the accident, and Shelby sustained severe injuries.
Does anyone here think that the driver did not act in wanton disregard for human life?  Does anyone reading believe that a criminal conviction for vehicular homicide would not occur?  Everyone understands driving three times the speed limit, passing cars, and running stop signs is deliberately indifferent to human life.  It's a crime.

Since this a blog about Section 1983 law, you already know the punchline.  "John Smith" was a police officer.  And according to two federal judges, the police officer did not engage in conscience-shocking behavior.  Sitzes v. City of West Memphis, Arkansas (CA8) (here).

It's cases like these that illustrate the judiciary's contempt for the average American.  When you or I speed, we act in reckless disregard for human life.  When a police officer speeds (he was responding to a call that someone had had $55 dollars - no typo - stolen), a different legal standard applies.  All hope is not lost, however, as one judge dissented.

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Shouldn't it be harder to convict a person of a crime than to hold the person civilly liable?  If an individually will be held criminally liable for speeding, shouldn't a police officer be held civilly liable for the same?

Shouldn't the common law of crimes inform the common law of Section 1983?  If driving dangerously is acting in wanton disregard of human life: Isn't driving dangerously evidencing deliberate indifference for human life?  The language used is different, but the concepts are the same.  Why then don't judges look to criminal law for an understanding of civil law?

Would applying standards of criminal law to civil law would lead to greater police accountability?  After all, not many here would dispute that driving as the officer in Sitzes at least presented prima facie evidence of criminal liability.  It would be a triable case, yes, and a conviction would not be guarantee.  None would dispute that the officer's conduct presented a jury question.

Here, however, the Eighth Circuit dismissed the case without ever allowing a jury to hear it.  Is this part of a larger trend - namely, of federal judges abrogating the power of the jury?  See, "Shouldn't Excessive Force Cases (Almost) Always Go to a Jury?"

2 comments:

  D

8:03 PM

Absolutely unreal. The lengths that the judiciary will go to bend over backwards protecting police officers is crazy. The excerpt that you included omits the fact that he had neither his emergency lights or siren on as he drove at 3 times over the speed limit en route to the supposed "emergency."

  Anonymous

4:44 PM

West Memphis Police Officer James Wright Fired After Crash Which Killed Teen And Internet Photo
March 15th, 2007 http://badcopnews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/west-memphis-police-officer-james-wright-fired-after-crash-which-killed-teen-and-internet-photo/
WEST MEMPHIS, ARKANSAS – The West Memphis Arkansas police officer involved in a deadly wreck that killed a teenager has been fired, for violating a department policy.
Officials with the West Memphis Investigators found the victim to be at fault for the crash.