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Martinez v. Harris County

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

June 13, 2017

JACLYNN MARTINEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NEXT FRIEND OF MINORS DYLAN MARTINEZ AND CHRISTINE MARTINEZ, Appellant
v.
HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 127th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2014-31409

          Panel consists of Justices Higley, Massengale, and Huddle. Justice Higley, dissenting.

          OPINION

          Michael Massengale Justice

         Jaclynn Martinez sued Harris County for injuries she and her two children sustained when her car was struck by a deputy constable who was pursuing a fleeing motorist. The trial court granted the county summary judgment on the basis of governmental immunity. Martinez contends that the trial court erred.

         We conclude that the county conclusively established that its officer, who was driving a car, acted in good faith when, pursuant to policies established to promote the safety of law-enforcement officers, he took over a pursuit previously initiated by another law-enforcement officer on a motorcycle. We further conclude that over the course of the short pursuit, no subsequent developments altered the balance of need and risk factors sufficiently to require an end to the chase. Because Martinez failed to introduce controverting proof that no reasonable person in the officer's position could have thought the circumstances justified his actions, we affirm the judgment.

         Background

         Harris County Deputy Constable C. Johnson was on patrol in a cruiser late one Friday afternoon when he encountered a high-speed police pursuit in progress. Because this appeal concerns a dispute over the deputy constable's good faith in the exercise of his discretionary duties by joining and continuing the pursuit, we focus on the information that was known to him, and we disregard information which was unknown to him at the time. See Telthorster v. Tennell, 92 S.W.3d 457, 465 (Tex. 2002).

         A Houston Police Department motorcycle officer with his emergency lights activated was pursuing the driver of a Dodge Caliber with paper license plates. Because the county and the city used different radio systems, Johnson could not communicate with the motorcycle officer directly. However, he joined and took the lead in the pursuit, in compliance with the Harris County Constable's guidelines which provided that a constable in a cruiser generally should take over any pursuit initiated by a law-enforcement officer on a motorcycle. The policy promotes the safety of motorcycle officers, for whom a pursuit is more dangerous as compared to officers driving cars.

         In addition to this general policy, Johnson considered several additional factors when he decided to join and continue the pursuit. He considered the time of day, traffic conditions, severity of the crime, risk that the pursuit posed to the suspect and others, and public safety. It was shortly after 5:00 p.m. at the end of the work week; however, traffic was light to moderate despite the nearness of rush hour. It was dry and sunny. While Johnson was unaware of what had caused the initiation of the pursuit, he was able to observe that the fleeing driver apparently was committing the felony offense of evading arrest or detention.[1]

         The fleeing driver posed a danger to the general public. While speeding, he forced several other drivers from the road during the pursuit. Though Johnson recognized that the pursuit itself posed some risk, he concluded that the fleeing driver posed a greater risk to the public.

          Johnson initially pursued the fleeing driver along the service road of an interstate highway, then through a residential neighborhood, and finally into a more commercial area. He continually reevaluated the need to pursue the fleeing driver and the risks involved throughout the pursuit. As they approached the intersection of Telephone Road and Woodridge Drive, the traffic light was red. Initially, Johnson believed that the driver was going to run the red light. However, the fleeing driver abruptly turned right on Woodridge Drive from Telephone Road's rightmost northbound lane. When Johnson decelerated and tried to follow from the left northbound lane of Telephone Road, he struck Jaclynn Martinez's car, a Kia Soul. Martinez, who had her children in her car with her, was stopped at a red light in the left-turn lane of Woodridge Drive. When Johnson turned onto Woodridge Drive, his front bumper struck the front bumper of her car and pushed it backward into a truck directly behind her, as depicted in the crash report:

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

          Johnson testified that when he made the decision to continue pursuing the fleeing driver onto Woodridge Drive, he thought the space occupied by Martinez's vehicle, in front of the truck, was empty. Though he did not realize at that time that his view was obstructed, Johnson later identified two obstructions that accounted for his failure to see Martinez's small car-the fleeing driver's vehicle to his right and a one-foot decline in the road's elevation where Martinez was stopped. The fleeing driver's car and the dip in the road effectively concealed Martinez's car from Johnson's view due to its relatively low profile. According to Johnson, he did not see Martinez until he struck her, or immediately before the collision.

          The record does not disclose precise information about the duration of Johnson's pursuit. He testified in his deposition that the portion of the pursuit that went through a neighborhood lasted three minutes. He testified that the chase continued for another "three to four minutes" between the collision and the time when he took the suspect into custody, and the entire chase lasted "approximately six, seven minutes."

         Martinez sued Harris County for negligence, alleging that she and her two children were injured when Johnson's patrol cruiser struck her car. The county generally denied Martinez's allegations and asserted governmental immunity.

         Harris County moved for summary judgment on its immunity defense. The county argued that the doctrine of official immunity shielded Johnson from personal liability, and that it therefore retained its governmental immunity from suit. Martinez responded that the county had not proven conclusively Johnson's good faith, a prerequisite to official immunity.

         Disregarding materials the trial court struck from the record, the summary-judgment proof consisted of:

• an affidavit and curriculum vitae of the county's expert, former Chief of Police of San Antonio, Albert Ortiz;
• a transcript of Johnson's deposition;
• a letter summarizing the Internal Affairs Division's investigation of Johnson's accident;
• an accident report; and
• an interdepartmental statement written by Johnson regarding his pursuit of the ...

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