Fleeing criminal suspect who rams cop cars must pay for the damage, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on December 3rd, 2018

A criminal suspect who runs into police cars while fleeing law-enforcement officers can be ordered to pay restitution for damage to the government’s vehicles, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a unanimous ruling handed down Nov. 30.

Darryl B. Shears Jr. was fleeing several Davenport police officers who tried and failed to stop him using spike strips before using squad cars to block his vehicle. Shears subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and eluding an officer, and the city filed a restitution claim for $7,093 for the police vehicles damaged by Shears.

Shears argued that the damage to the vehicles was caused not by his criminal conduct but by police officers who placed their cars in his path. However, the Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Brent Appel, held that there was a sufficient link between Shears’s actions leading police on a high-speed chase and the resulting damage to the two squad cars.

“We think the issue of potential damage to police vehicles as a result of a high-speed chase would be within the scope of liability in a negligence action against Shears,” the Court said. “Certainly, a reasonable fact finder could conclude under the circumstances of this case that it was foreseeable that police would engage in an effort to apprehend the speeding Shears and that police vehicles could be damaged in the effort to bring Shears’s vehicle to a halt.”

Appel traced the origins of criminal restitution to a victim-rights movement in the 1980s to compensate victims for economic harm as well as holding offenders financially responsible for their wrongdoing. The question is whether the government can be a victim for restitution purposes.

Appel wrote that there are no Iowa cases dealing directly with the ability of a government entity to recover damages when police cars are damaged in a high-speed chase. In the Shears decision, however, the Court held that such recovery is possible. That’s because the statute providing for criminal restitution makes recovery available to “any person,” and elsewhere the Iowa Code includes government entities in the definition of “person.”

“At the outset, we believe that a government entity may, under the right circumstances, be a victim under the Iowa criminal restitution statute under our precedents,” Appel wrote. “There may well be, of course, situations in which a government entity is not entitled to recover because causation is not established. But the language in the Iowa criminal restitution statute provides no bar against recovery by government entities. We decline to supply one.”

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