Recently, the news story of a police officer pulling over a fire chief as he was rushing over to the scene of a car accident took the internet by storm. On April 10, a garbage truck driving at a speed of about 45 miles an hour collided with a fuel-tanker in Rincon, Georgia. The tanker was carrying 9,000 gallons of potentially explosive material and the two vehicles became fused together. At least one victim was critically injured and trapped inside the crash scene. Fire Chief Corey Rahn was issued three citations: one for “failure to exercise due care,” one for “reckless driving” and one for “failure to yield to an emergency vehicle.” Although this news story happened in Georgia, emergency situations such as this happen regularly in all states.
Emergency vehicles in every state are supposed to have some sort of ‘immunity' or leeway in breaking the law if they are acting within the course of their emergency response duties. RCW 46.61.035 states that the “driver of an authorized emergency vehicle, when responding to an emergency call or when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law,” may exceed maximum speed limits, park in no-park zones, disregard regulations governing ‘direction of movement,' and run stop signs or red lights. The caveat is that they must be in a clearly marked emergency vehicle that meet the requirements of RCW 46.37.190.
However, what are your rights as an every-day civilian if you are acting out in an emergency? What if for example, you were on your way to the hospital because your wife was suffering a miscarriage, and had to exceed the maximum speed limit?
The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 46.61.050 explicitly states that the “driver of any vehicle, every bicyclist, and every pedestrian” must obey traffic signals at all times. It only gives exceptions to authorized emergency vehicles. Further, RCW 46.61.400 goes on to say that “every person” must not exceed the ‘maximum speed' of 60mph on a highway, 50mph on county roads, and 25mph in residential areas. The statute only allows one to lower your speed, not speed it up. In short, the law on its face stats that everyone, even in emergency situations must obey the ‘traffic' laws.
The test really comes down to the “reasonability” of the officer who pulls you over- and human-to-human relationships. If you are caught in a situation where you are being pulled over in an emergency situation, it is advised that you:
- Stay calm and explain the emergency to the officer.
- Request that he follow or guide you to the hospital in his ‘authorized emergency vehicle' and hash out the citation later, once medical care has been provided. An officer will not, for liability reasons, transport you in his or her own vehicle.
- If he refuses, and detains you even longer, call 911 and request an ambulance at that point.
- Document your evidence, because you will want to take this up with the judge. This includes getting the report from the medical personnel of what happened on the scene, and getting the corroboration that you were kept from reaching the hospital.
- It is also recommended generally, that in such “speeding” situations, you do not drive recklessly regardless of how stressed you are. While RCW 46.61.465 states that “speeding shall be prima facie evidence of driving a vehicle in a reckless manner”, it does not specify how fast you must go to be convicted. It is highly unlikely that traveling 5-10mph over the speed limit would constitute ‘reckless driving,' but exceeding a limit by 50mph, would.
Although the Washington state Motor Vehicle Code does not address emergency situations, the key question a judge will ask will be whether your story was reasonable for the circumstances. A good lawyer will also be helpful in telling the story and gathering the documentation you need.
While there are no ‘speeding' exceptions in emergency situations, the common law allows for a criminal exception if you had to “trespass” on someone else's property if there was a public or private necessity. A defense to trespass can exist when you (or, more likely, government actors like law-enforcement agents) trespass out of necessity to protect the community or society as a whole. For the public necessity defense to work, there must be an immediate necessity for the trespass and you must have trespassed in genuine good faith that it was to protect public safety. Although not a complete defense, private necessity lets you trespass if it's to protect yourself from death or serious bodily injury in an emergency (ie., if you're being chased by a dangerous animal and are seeking shelter in someone else's toolshed).
Other Good Samaritan Laws
Lastly, almost every state has their own version of “Good Samaritan” laws which protect you from civil or criminal liability if you were acting in good faith, to respond to an emergency situation. For example, with drug overdoses tripling since 1990, 22 states along with Washington, have enacted laws providing immunity for those to call 911 or seek help for themselves or others in an overdose situations. The law allows people to: a) call 911 if you or someone else was involved in illegal drug use in overdose situations, and b) provide emergency care or prescriptions to reverse the effects of an overdose. The immunity provided by 911 laws is generally limited to low-level drug crimes, and does not provide protection from more serious offenses such as manufacturing, trafficking or distribution of controlled substances.
RCW 4.24.300 specifically goes further, and provides for legal immunity from civil liability to anyone who renders medical aid in an emergency situation. The only caveat is they must not be receiving “compensation” (ie. not acting during the course of their employment).
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Whether it be a felony, misdemeanor, juvenile case, DUI, or a reckless driving or vehicular assault case, criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi is committed to defending your constitutional rights. Whether that's dismissal or reduction of charges, a not-guilty verdict, or an alternative sentence, Mr. Karimi understands the challenges and frustration you face, as well as the best options available to your defense. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, arrested, or feel as though you were treated unfairly, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-621-8777 during regular business hours or 206-660-6200, 24 hours a day for a free consultation. You can also e-mail us now to set up an appointment.