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UC San Francisco Police Officer Prevails in Traffic Collision Case

Posted on Wednesday, March 01, 2006 at 12:00PM
Posted by Lance Davis, Esq.

University of California, San Francisco, Police Officer Lance Martin recently was awarded back pay in binding arbitration after successfully grieving a 20-hour suspension for using his patrol car’s lights and sirens and being involved in a vehicle accident. Arbitrator Luella Nelson’s award included rescinding the suspension, having the university expunge all underlying charges from Martin’s record, and requiring the university to make the officer whole.

The University Police Department had charged Martin with violating their general orders regarding the use of emergency vehicle warning devices and with violating the Vehicle Code by failing to drive his emergency vehicle with due regard for the safety of others. Martin, a member of the Federated University Police Officer Association, challenged the discipline through the university’s grievance process because his actions had complied with policy.

On Feb 28, 2004, Martin met with his watch commander, Brian Patterson, early in his swing shift and was informed a fugitive was expected to arrive at the university’s hospital sometime that evening. The officers planned to capture the fugitive when he arrived on university property. Patterson told Martin the fugitive had a $200,000 warrant and a criminal history, which included sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer.

Only three patrol officers were on duty during the swing shift. While on patrol at an outlying campus facility, Martin heard Patterson radio another officer to return to the hospital. Martin then was called by a dispatcher to return to the hospital regarding the fugitive. Martin believed Patterson was about to make contact with the fugitive.

University Overrules Supervisor’s Findings

Martin stopped his patrol car at a three-way controlled intersection and activated his lights and siren. He traveled into the intersection, against the red light, at about 5-10 m.p.h. When he was about two-thirds of the way across, the patrol car was struck on the passenger side by a civilian vehicle which entered the intersection from one of the cross streets. Martin promptly informed the dispatcher he had been involved in an accident.

Patterson, who had not been able to make contact with the fugitive, arrived at the accident scene, interviewed the parties involved and wrote a report. He concluded the civilian driver was at fault in the accident because he had failed to yield to an emergency vehicle before entering the intersection despite seeing the emergency lights and hearing the siren. The civilian driver claimed he could not tell from which direction the lights and siren were approaching.

The university conducted an internal affairs investigation and, months later, re-interviewed the parties. They charged Martin had failed to follow the university’s police department general orders regarding the use of emergency vehicle warning devices. The university also charged Martin with violating the Vehicle Code by failing to drive an emergency vehicle with due regard for the safety of other motorists.

The university relied on select sections of its general orders, which require patrol officers only to use lights and sirens, or Code 3 response, when advised to do so by a dispatcher. The only exception, the university argued, was one where the officer advised the communication center the officer intended to go Code 3 before doing so. As neither condition applied to this case, the university imposed the suspension.

Accident Expert Testifies for Officer

As Martin’s attorney, I presented testimony from Kirk Barry of Barry Investigations, Inc., an expert on accident reconstruction, who had taken measurements at the site and reviewed both accident reports. Based on Martin’s speed at the time of the collision, Barry testified the officer activated his vehicle’s lights and siren 8.8 seconds before the civilian vehicle entered the intersection. The expert also explained standard driver reaction time at night is two seconds, giving the other driver ample time to yield to Martin’s emergency vehicle. On that evidence, the arbitrator rejected the claim Martin had proceeded through the intersection without due care.

I successfully argued Martin had complied with the general orders because the orders give officers the discretion to initiate Code 3 response, provided the officer advises “the communication center of the nature of the emergency and the response mode that has been taken.” The arbitrator found the language of the general order implied the officer could wait until after having initiated lights and siren before notifying the communication center. In Martin’s case, he was struck by the other vehicle 8-to-10 seconds after having initiated Code 3, and had no time to advise the communication center. His next radio call instead was to report the accident.

Arbitrator Nelson also rejected the university’s contention that Martin did not have adequate reason to initiate a Code 3 response. She found the response to capture a violent fugitive to be sufficient justification for Martin promptly to make his way to the university’s hospital. She further noted it is common for law enforcement to use lights and siren to get through a controlled intersection quickly and to discontinue lights and siren after clearing the intersection. The arbitrator found Martin’s exercise of discretion was in compliance with the general orders.

The arbitrator ultimately agreed with my argument the discipline was without just cause and ordered the suspension and the charges expunged from Martin’s records. Martin received back wages for the served suspension.

Officer Martin appreciates the support provided to him by the PORAC Legal Defense Fund and the Federated University Police Officers Association.

About the author: Lance Davis is an associate attorney with Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller, Johnsen & Uhrhammer. He represents PORAC LDF clients throughout California in discipline hearings and arbitrations.

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