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Car Theft Suspect Caught Eventually : Law's Wrong-Way Chase Traps Innocent Driver

September 22, 1987|BILLIE SUTHERLAND | Times Staff Writer

A Spring Valley man was injured when he swerved to avoid three National City police cars headed the wrong way on a freeway ramp in pursuit of a car-theft suspect Sunday, according to a California Highway Patrol investigator.

CHP accident investigator A. Calica said Michael Powell, 42, was traveling about 55 m.p.h. on the transition road from westbound California 94 to northbound Interstate 5 in San Diego when he swerved to avoid a head-on collision with the police cars, hit a freeway wall, then clipped the rear bumper of a police car.

"He continued to roll side over side and landed atop the National City police unit," Calica said. Powell was treated for his injuries at the scene.

Two of the National City police vehicles were damaged.

The car-theft suspect evaded the National City officers by spinning back around and entering northbound I-5, Calica said.

David Mitchell, 20, was later arrested by San Diego police officers on suspicion of auto theft, robbery and failure to yield in connection with the incident. Officers apprehended Mitchell in the back yard of a residence in the 1300 block of Edgemont Street in San Diego.

Chief Doubts Judgment

Asked whether the officers had made a good decision to pursue a car-theft suspect the wrong way on a freeway ramp, National City Police Chief Terry Hart said his "first response would be probably not, but I don't know that yet."

"Officers can go the wrong way on a street or drive faster than other vehicles in the normal performance of their duties if it is not done in a way that is grossly or criminally negligent," Hart said. "However, we could still be accountable for the civil liabilities. This situation is an example."

Hart said the department is investigating the matter and a CHP report should be released this week.

"Philosophically, in the line of police duty, people are going to be at risk. It's a matter of degree," Hart said. "We, in fact, do stop pursuits when the potential risks far exceed the potential gains."

Hart said the pursuit policies "do evolve" and are designed to allow officers to execute judgment. He said a wide variety of variable factors enter into that judgment.

Suspect Risked Others

"The suspect was going the wrong way on the freeway; I think the cop would have felt a sense of responsibility to stop this person who was putting other people's lives at risk," he said.

Lt. Tom Deese of the National City Police Department said that the seriousness of the offense determines the amount of force deemed reasonable in apprehending a suspect.

"We instruct our officers to obey all the traffic laws, but there comes a point where the gravity of the offense will justify the officers' actions in straying from policy," Deese said.

The incident began when a man jumped into a pickup truck owned by Michael Kovar as Kovar stood at an automatic teller machine on 3rd Avenue in Chula Vista. During a brief scuffle, the man allegedly struck Kovar in the face before fleeing in the vehicle.

Kovar flagged down a Chula Vista police officer, who chased the truck onto northbound I-5. A second Chula Vista unit followed. In National City, three units gave chase and took the lead in pursuing the suspect. At the one-way interconnector between westbound 94 and northbound 5, the driver made a U-turn--and headed east in the westbound lanes.

The Chula Vista units didn't follow the suspect in the wrong-way pursuit, but directed traffic and lit flares.

San Diego police units joined the pursuit after the collision.

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