Jose Maisonet-Maldonado was wanted for stabbing his girlfriend to death. He had admitted doing it, and Orlando police were hot on his trail.
Catching sight of him in east Orange County, they chased him for nine miles through busy streets on a Saturday night in April. The cars were going nearly 100 miles an hour as they reached downtown Orlando.
That high-speed chase ended abruptly and fatally that night when Maisonet-Maldonado’s vehicle slammed into a car carrying two young radiology technicians, Amanda Taylor, 28, and Fransesca Jeffry, 22.
The families of the two best friends are now suing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office forwrongful death.
When Are Police Chases Considered Negligent?
Police officers have a great deal of latitude to perform their duties before they are subject to lawsuit. However, if the officer was negligent or reckless about the decision to pursue a high-speed chase, the officer and the municipality can be held responsible for the harm they cause.
A high-speed chase is inherently risky — to the police, to the general public and to the suspect. Florida law only allows police chases for suspects wanted for one of 12 crimes, one of which is murder. A police chase may be appropriate when the suspect poses an immediate risk to public safety.
Chasing a suspect may not be the right choice if the suspect poses no urgent danger or when an alternative, less extreme means of capture is available. The safety risk also depends on other factors, such as the level of traffic and whether there are pedestrians around.
“They have to also do a risk versus benefit analysis of whether a high speed chase, through heavy streets, is appropriate,” explained the families’ attorney.
That analysis requires the officers to use their judgment, and courts generally won’t second-guess the officer’s judgment if it was reasonable.
In this case, the families argue, chasing Maisonet-Maldonado down Colonial Drive — a street known to be thick with cars and pedestrians, especially on a Saturday night — was not reasonable. A safer alternative was available; deputies had found and arrested Maisonet-Maldonado four times before.
Maisonet-Maldonado was also not an immediate threat to others, the families’ lawyer contends. “He had already killed the person he was after and he was not a threat to the public.”
Under Florida law, the families could receive up to $100,000 each if the fatal car accident is found to have been caused by police negligence. They know that money can’t replace the lives lost, but they hope to have an impact on how the police weigh their decisions on high-speed chases in the future.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office refused to comment on the wrongful death claims but is performing an internal review of the officers’ decision to chase.
Maisonet-Maldonado has been indicted for killing Taylor and Jeffry as well as charged for murdering his girlfriend. He is currently in the Orange County jail.
“Victim’s Family To Sue Sheriff’s Office Over Chase Crash” (WFTV Orlando, July 20, 2010)