Illinois Appellate Court Narrows Definition of “In Custody” in Police Pursuit Cases

April 28, 2021

On April 9, 2021, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District decided Robinson v. Village of Sauk Village, et al. 2021 IL App (1st) 200223. In Robinson, a pedestrian who was struck and injured by a fleeing lawbreaker sued Sauk Village, the Village of Crete, and several of their police officers for willful and wanton conduct in the course of a police vehicular pursuit. The pedestrian was struck by a stolen car, operated by Mark Coffey, a parolee on an ankle monitor.

The officers were originally alerted via radio to a reported stolen Buick. Once observed, the first officer followed behind the Buick for a quarter mile before activating his overhead lights for a traffic stop. In response, the Buick failed to yield to the lights and instead sped up. The first officer radioed for backup and continued to pursue. Other officers joined the pursuit, which traveled through multiple jurisdictions at speeds greater than 90 miles per hour, disobeying traffic signals, and crossing into oncoming traffic. The Buick eventually came to a stop in a church parking lot in Dyer, Indiana. The first officer got out of his vehicle, and with his weapon drawn, yelled commands to the driver. The other officers arrived and also exited their cars with weapons drawn. Each of the officers had weapons drawn and pointed at the driver. The squad cars were positioned, perpendicular to, adjacent to, and behind the Buick.

Over a minute after the officers arrived, Coffey sped off in the Buick. The officers present, and other officers from Sauk Village who had arrived gave chase from the parking lot. The vehicle re-entered Illinois, with the officers behind, traveling at over 100 mph, disregarding traffic signals, and entering into oncoming traffic. The chase entered a residential neighborhood where Coffey left the Buick and stole another car and drove off. Coffey, in the new car, pursued by officers, entered the intersection at 221st St., and Sauk Trail, where it struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Coffey then fled into Indiana again, where he was later shot and killed by an Indiana police officer.

The trial court, relying on Section 4-106(b) of the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, found Coffey to be an “escaping prisoner” and entered summary judgment for the officers. The trial court found that once the Buick was brought to a halt in the parking lot in Dyer, in the presence of officers with weapons drawn, that Coffey was not free to leave, and therefore “in custody” pursuant to the Tort Immunity Act. Plaintiff appealed.  The Appellate Court went through the case law with respect to Section 4-106 and distinguished Ries v. City of Chicago, 242 Ill. 2d 205 (2011) and Townsend v. Anderson, 2019 IL App. (1st) 180771 that previously interpreted Section 4-106 to apply to other traffic stops.

Specifically, the Appellate Court limited the holding of Townsend to apply only to those persons whose “freedom of movement was directly controlled and limited.” Even though Coffey would not have felt free to leave, the officers never “controlled or limited his freedom of movement.” The Appellate Court rejected the idea that officers shouting commands with guns drawn and pointed at a driver could establish “physical custody.” The Appellate Court also pointed to the officers’ positioning of their vehicles in the parking lot, which did not prevent the vehicle from fleeing forward or in reverse as support for the lack of physical custody. The court also rejected the argument that because Coffey was wearing an ankle monitor, that he was in custody.

It’s difficult to square the reasoning of the Appellate Court in Robinson with that of Townsend.  The Robinson Court’s reasoning deals a serious blow to the prospect that a vehicle once stopped due to the officers’ show of authority (and even more so than in Townsend, drawing their weapons and pointing them at the driver), cannot be considered “in custody.” The Robinson Court’s specific focus on physical control over the suspect limits Townsend’s prior expansion of the Illinois Supreme Court’s holding in Ries, which specifically rejected the contention that direct custody or physical control was required to be “in custody.” Needless to say, there appears to be an intra-District split on the interpretation of Section 4-106 that will require resolution by the Illinois Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court denied leave to appeal in Townsend, but may take up Robinson given the split in authority.

The Appellate Court went further than the trial court and additionally found there to be questions of fact regarding whether the officers’ conduct during the pursuit was willful and wanton and whether the officers’ conduct could be considered the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries. The court found that the specific facts of the pursuit, i.e., the high speeds, crossing multiple jurisdictions, pursuing through residential neighborhoods, the disregard for traffic control devices, and veering into oncoming traffic to create questions of fact on these issues, comparing the facts to Suwanski v. Village of Lombard, 342 Ill. App. 3d 248 (2nd Dist. 2003) which is a case previously limited to its facts (and considered an outlier) by other courts.

We here at HC&B are experienced in litigating police pursuit cases, and understand that these lawsuits can present complex questions of risk and liability. The main takeaway from the Robinson case is that each case will come down to a fact-intensive inquiry even at the summary judgment stage. We at HC&B are closely watching this and other cases and the likely effects of the case on future litigation. If there are further developments of note, please watch this space for updates. The experienced attorneys at HC&B can assist in providing both legal and practical advice in managing the risks of police pursuits, and preparing for and defending against anticipated litigation. As always, please contact us if you have any questions or concerns.

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