Police Liability for High Speed Chases

Police Liability for High Speed Chases

Many Pennsylvania laws affect the power, responsibilities and liabilities of law enforcement authorities who engage in high speed chases. A recent Pennsylvania appeals case clarified one issue relating to high speed chases—the liability of a police office to a third party injured as a result of the chase. Sellers v. Township of Abington, 67 A.3d 863 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2013).

In the case, police officers pursued a mildly speeding car in the early morning hours. The driver immediately “floored it,” because he was afraid he would be arrested for driving under the influence. The driver and his two passengers had engaged in a long evening of drinking, and the passengers had requested rides.

As the chase ensued, at speeds in excess of 100 mph, both passengers asked the driver to stop or slow down. After hitting a dip in the roadway, the fleeing car went airborne, crashed into trees and ejected one of the passengers. The ejected passenger died, and his heirs sued the policed department claiming that the decedent passenger was an “innocent bystander,” to the chase.

Pennsylvania law provides that law enforcers are liable for their negligence to innocent bystanders who are injured as a result of police vehicle pursuit. Sometimes high speed police chases are necessary, and not all high speed chases constitute negligence. In each case, the court or jury must consider all the facts, including the speed, the officer’s experience, the duration of the chase, the actual driving that took place and any other relevant factors.

In the case of the decedent passenger, the Pennsylvania appeals court decided that passengers who engage in extensive drinking with a driver and then voluntarily ride with the inebriated driver are not innocent bystanders. The court focused on the public’s interest in ensuring that the roads are safe from dangerous drivers. Noting that police officers have no certain way to know whether there are passengers in a fleeing car, or whether passengers are victims or are complicit with the driver’s misconduct, the court absolved police officers from a duty to ascertain the presence or status of passengers in vehicular chases. The court left for another day the liability of a police officer who pursues a car where he or she has reason to know that an innocent passenger is involuntarily at risk.

 

 

 

Ambulance Companies Can Compete

Ambulance Companies Can Compete

Pennsylvania law permits municipalities to chose a preferred ambulance company and to appropriate public funds for ambulance and emergency medical services. Emergency Care v. Millcreek Township, 68 A.3d 1 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2013).

But when a Pennsylvania township effectively banned all competing ambulance companies from doing business in the township, it exceeded its powers under the law.

The township passed an ordinance designating the township’s ambulance service as the preferred provider. But the ordinance also directed all 911 calls to the township’s ambulance, required all emergency providers to redirect emergency calls to the 911 system and banned any other ambulance service from doing business or advertising in the township. An established commercial ambulance service with numerous subscribers and a 25 year history of doing business in the township sued and won.

The court held that municipalities may designate preferred emergency services providers and may devote public funds to such preferred providers. But the power to designate cannot be exercised so broadly as to “effectively exclude all other providers.” Finding that the township’s ordinance was an “attempt to isolate a revenue stream and eliminate competition,” the court struck the ordinance down as unconstitutional.

Gun Court Rules Illegal in Warrantless Search

Gun Court Rules Illegal in Warrantless Search

A Philadelphia man sentenced to probation in Philadelphia’s “Gun Court,” persuaded the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the Gun Court rules were illegal.

Philadelphia’s Gun Court is not actually a court, instead it simply is a program designed to fast track trial and sentencing in gun possession crimes. The program was designed to decrease the number of illegal guns in active circulation, and to speed up supervision of possessors of illegal guns.

The man who challenged the program focused on the Gun Court rules of probation. Arrested for pointing a gun at an occupant of a car, the man was found guilty of possessing a hand gun without a license, and of possessing a hand gun with an altered serial number. Only twenty years old, the man already had an extensive criminal history. Largely because of that past criminal history, the judge sentenced the man to several years in jail, to be followed by a strict probation period of three years. Additionally, the judge ordered that the man’s probation officer could search his home at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, to find guns or contraband. The broad search power in the probation conditions was a routine provision used in Gun Court for probationers.

The man appealed, focusing on the probation provision that permitted a probation officer to search his home without warrant and without any particular reason or suspicion. Pennsylvania law regulating probation officers permits them to conduct warrantless searches of probationers’ homes and property if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the probationer has violated probation rules or possesses contraband or other illegal property. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court relied on the probation statute and decided that Gun Court judges may not expand the powers of probation officers by permitting “suspicionless, warrantless searches” of probationers’ homes and property.

Gun Court may continue to expedite and focus on gun crimes; but the firm measure of subjecting probationers to property searches without reasonable suspicion is no longer a weapon in the Gun Court’s arsenal.

No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

No Unemployment Benefits After Religious Dispute

A worker who refused to wear a name tag bearing a religious “mission statement,” lost the right to collect unemployment benefits after the court found that he quit his job and had no clear religious beliefs that were violated in the workplace. Mathis v. UCBR, 64 A.3d 293 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2103).

The worker was employed for almost two years at a small heating and air conditioning company. The company’s owner included a spiritual mission statement in the employee handbook and on a name tag which all employees were required to wear. The name tag displayed the employee’s name, photo and company logo on the front; on the back, the name tag included a mission statement that stated that the company was not just a business, but was a ministry, and that the company was run in a way “most pleasing to the Lord.”

After working for the company for almost two years, the employee decided to cover the back of his name tag with duct tape, later explaining that he felt the company owner was ‘always pushing his religion.” When the owner noticed the duct tape, he told the employee to remove it or he would lose his job. The employee left the workplace and filed for unemployment.

In the subsequent litigation, the court focused on two issues. First, the court analyzed whether the employee was fired or quit. Because the employer created an option, conditioning the loss of the job on the employee’s removing the duct tape, the court found that the owner had not fired the employee. Instead, the court noted, the employer had given the employee a choice to keep his job by removing the duct tape. But because the employee then simply chose to leave the workplace, he was determined to have quit his job.

When work place disputes arise, an employee is not considered to have been fired if the employer has given the employee a choice. Statements from employers like “there is the door,” or “shape up or ship out,” are not considered firings. When employees are given an alternative to follow workplace rules or be fired, the courts focus closely on the employees’ response. Generally, an employer must clearly and unequivocally fire an employee for the termination to be considered a firing.

Next, the court focused on the religious issues. The court noted that while the employee claimed that his religious freedom and religious beliefs had been violated at work, the employee never identified his own religious beliefs and never explained just what he found offensive or burdensome in the name tag mission statement or in the workplace environment.

In defending his name tag mission statement, the business owner pointed out that the company employed workers of many faiths, and that while he advanced Christian beliefs, his Jewish employees and non-religious employees had no objections to the atmosphere at the workplace or to the content of the name tag statement.

Small businesses have broad leeway in introducing religious values in the workplace. While government agencies must respect constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, private employers may advance religious goals, provided they do so openly, without coercion and without discriminating against employees of different faiths.

Woman Lost Property at Tax Sale

Woman Lost Property at Tax Sale

Shortly after January 1, county delinquent tax collection authorities will start notifying some Pennsylvania property owners that they are delinquent in their payment of their real estate taxes. Eventually, that real estate will be sold at tax sale if the taxes remain unpaid. If you receive a delinquent tax notice in the upcoming months, don’t delay, resolve the payment promptly and make sure you have paid the taxes in full.

A Pennsylvania widow was shocked to learn that she lost her home at tax sale, and she was successful in her appeal to challenge the sale. The widow was not familiar with her real estate taxes because her husband had customarily taken care of the payments. When he died, she used the life insurance proceeds to pay off the home mortgage. But she failed to pay part of the delinquent taxes and then received a delinquent tax bill with penalties and interest. She promptly paid the delinquent tax bill of $897.19 in full. But because interest of $6.90 was accruing each month, and because another interest charge was imposed after she mailed her check, she was left with a balance due of $6.90. Several months later, the tax collection bureau billed her $28.25, a sum consisting of the interest balance of $6.90, plus postage and costs. The widow didn’t pay the $28.25.

The following year, the widow again paid her taxes late, and the total due, with penalties and interest was $3,990.03. The bill did not include the previous year’s balance of $28.25 and the tax collection bureau apparently did not send any further requests for the $28.25 from the previous year.

Because the $28.25 was over a year overdue, and because it caused the widow’s home to be on the delinquent tax list, her home went up for tax sale and was purchased by a bidder. When she discovered what had happened, she immediately requested a hearing to set aside the sale. The county court simply reviewed the record, found the sale legal and denied her any relief.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed the county court, finding that fundamental state and federal principles of constitutional law demand “the most rigorous due process standards” when government deprives an owner of property. The widow was entitled to a hearing, in which the collection bureau was responsible to prove that she had actual notice of the scheduled sale. The appeals court returned the case to the county for further hearing and proof.

Notices from tax collection authorities must be taken very seriously by property owners. In order to hold all property owners accountable to pay their real estate taxes, Pennsylvania law provides an orderly process for the forced sale of real estate burdened by delinquent taxes. Be sure your real estate taxes are current, and if they are not, pay careful attention to all notices regarding your delinquent taxes. If you have actual notice of a tax sale, even if you think the sale is a mistake, don’t ignore the notice. You could lose your property.

Cite

Battisti v. TCB of Beaver County, 76 A.3d 11 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2013).

Changes to Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Impact Family Businesses

Changes to Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Impact Family Business

Very recent changes to Pennsylvania inheritance tax law make it more affordable for families to pass on interests in family businesses. See 72 P.S. §9111.

Businesses in existence for five years, with book value assets worth less than $5 million, and with fewer than 50 full-time employees can take advantage of the new law. All owners must be family members. Businesses with a principal purpose of managing investments or income producing assets are excluded from the protection of the new law.

Now when an owner dies, if he or she leaves an interest in a qualified business to a son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister or other limited lineal or ancestral relatives, the inherited interest is not subject to inheritance tax.

Before the Act was passed, when small business owners died, their heirs were subject to Pennsylvania inheritance taxes on the share of the business each inherited. Pennsylvania inheritance tax rate are based on the relationship of the beneficiary to the decedent. Spouses pay no inheritance tax, but parents, children and grandchildren pay 4.5%, siblings pay 12% and all other beneficiaries pay 15%. The law was passed to protect small business owners from the drain of cash or assets triggered by inheritance taxes on the share left by a deceased family member.

The relatives who inherit a share of the business must keep the business in family hands, continuing to maintain the business in the ownership of family members, for at least 7 years. They are required to report to the state every year confirming continued family ownership or they risk losing the exemption of the new law, and then must pay inheritance taxes.