Good news travels fast, and bad news travels faster. Since Clint Ryan – the assistant police chief of the North Las Vegas Police Department – was arrested earlier this week on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI), local media have been covering the story aggressively.  While it is fortunate that Ryan was detained before his conduct caused a drinking-and-driving accident, the mixture of legitimate condemnation of dangerous behavior and less-virtuous schadenfreude has had an unfortunate impact on the morale of the wider Las Vegas community.
Ryan was pulled over after an off-duty police officer phoned in his suspicions that the driver of a truck was under the influence. According to reports, Ryan’s truck was hauling a trailer with a horse inside and was weaving on Sunday night on U.S. 95 near Tropicana Avenue. 
Commenting on the situation, a former detective for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department described the arrest of one of the region’s top cops on DUI charges “rough.”  Indeed, this unfortunate mash-up of law enforcers and enforcement of laws raises several tough questions, among them:
- Would the off-duty officer have reported the suspicious driver if he had known it was a fellow cop?
- Will the assistant chief face harsher penalties because of his position?
- Should the assistant chief be demoted as a result of his arrest?
- If the assistant chief is ultimately convicted, should he lose his job?
- Should penalties be increased for drunk drivers who tow trailers or other cargo?
- If a law enforcement officer causes a drunk driving accident, should the officer face heightened charges because of the officer’s presumed knowledge that drunk driving is so dangerous?
Stiffer Financial Penalties Possible
If a police officer is involved in a drunk driving crash and is sued by the victim or the victim’s surviving family members, a civil lawsuit for damages is likely to yield a high verdict. The plaintiffs are more likely to seek – and receive – punitive damages, which are financial penalties designed to punish the wrongdoer (in law-speak, the “tortfeasor”) rather than to compensate the victim. Normally, civil lawsuits (also known as suits in “tort”) are meant to make a victim whole again, to the greatest extent possible. For this reason, a plaintiff in a tort case must prove not only that the defendant acted in an unreasonable manner, and that this conduct caused harm to the plaintiff, but also that the plaintiff suffered damages. Those damages must be specific to the greatest extent possible: the cost of past medical services (i.e., surgery, physical therapy, etc. that has already been completed by the time of trial), the value of lost wages, and also more abstract damages like sums representing future medical expenses, future lost wages, and compensation for intangible harms like pain and suffering, loss of consortium, etc.
It can be hard to nail down the exact amount of compensatory damages (also known as general damages) owed to a plaintiff, but this analysis is entirely separate from that for punitive damages (also known as exemplary damages). Punitive damages, as stated above, are designed to punish the wrongdoer rather than compensate the victim. And this is where a police officer responsible for a car accident where alcohol is a factor should have cause for concern. As law-abiding citizens, we hold ourselves to a high standard of complying with the law. It is only natural that we expect that the police officers who enforce those laws – sometimes against us, if we have an occasional lapse – will follow them with an even greater level of obedience. But when an officer is charged with violating a law and creating a serious public safety risk, it is likely that the community will be outraged and that this desire for harsh treatment will translate into the jury’s decision making. A jury should not channel that outrage into an inflated award of compensatory damages – indeed, this would expose its verdict to being overturned on appeal – but it has largely free reign to impose a stiff penalty as punitive damages.
In Nevada, due to so-called tort “reform,” community outrage is not enough to impose punitive damages. First, there must be “clear and convincing evidence” that the wrongdoer acted with “oppression, fraud, or malice.”  The clear-and-convincing standard is a standard of proof above the “preponderance of the evidence” standard but below the well-known criminal threshold of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a 99-percent threshold, and if a preponderance is 51 percent, then “clear and convincing” might be 67 percent, 75 percent, or 80 percent.
Once this legal standard for “activating” punitive damages is met, another statutory limitation kicks in. In Nevada punitive damages are capped at $300,000 if the compensatory damages totaled less than $100,000, and in cases where the compensatory damages exceeded $100,000 the punitive damages cannot exceed three times that amount. For example, a case where the plaintiff suffered $500,000 in damages could not result in a punitive damages award in excess of $1.5 million. 
They Ought to Know Better
As stated above, the sense of community outrage around Ryan’s case could have translated into a higher jury verdict if he had hurt someone and gone to trial over it. If Ryan is ultimately charged with a criminal offense, he may also face higher criminal penalties. Criminal penalties will vary with a drunk driver’s record of past alcohol-involved incidents. In exceptional cases where serious injuries or even death results, the driver’s knowledge that it was unsafe to drive can affect the gravity of the criminal charges sought by prosecutors. For police officers like Ryan, the professional knowledge that alcohol-related accidents are common could influence this analysis.
If you or your loved ones have been affected by a drunk driving accident, contact a knowledgeable car accident lawyer for a consultation.
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force graphic by the 15th Wing Public Affairs office and Tim Awaya
Image Credit: Senior Airman Christian Sullivan