As Published in Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly
On the night of February 19, 2004, a motorist operating a gold Taurus automobile was positively identified by a Providence police officer as a member of a local gang. The officer attempted to conduct a stop of the vehicle since he allegedly had reason to believe that the operator of the Taurus illegally possessed a firearm. Providence police activated their overhead lights. Once this occurred, however, the gold Taurus accelerated in an attempt to elude police. The operator of the Gold Taurus was next observed to improperly drive around several vehicles (“left of center”) and through several red traffic lights. In his deposition, the Providence police officer described the maneuvers of the Gold Taurus as “reckless.” In a further effort to elude police, the operator was observed to shut his headlights while entering the highway and “swerving between cars.” Providence police immediately terminated their pursuit “based upon the fact that he [the operator] was on the highway now and his lights were off and I could see him from a distance swerving between cars, and to me, it wasn’t worth [chasing him] whether there was a gun in the car or not…because [the driver] was adamant on not stopping.”
Instead of continuing to chase the Taurus, Providence police issued a broadcast providing a brief description of the gold Taurus and the fact that that the driver (1) was in possession of a firearm; (2) had extinguished his headlights, and (3) was speeding en route to the Providence border. Providence police next proceeded to the west end of Providence “because this is the area where we know the subject to reside, for a chance he might come back into that area and we’ll deal with him then.”
The suspect’s Gold Taurus automobile soon left Providence and entered the area where neighboring police were patrolling. Owing to the broadcast from Providence, police began to chase the gold Taurus. Curiously, at his deposition, this same officer admitted that he “…didn’t know what [the operator] had done and why he was being pursued by Providence [police].”
After briefly observing the gold Taurus he broadcast to his dispatcher both the location of the vehicle and its registration number. A simple check of the registration by police would have positively identified the operator, although the registration was to another vehicle, not the Taurus. Before initiating his chase, police “observed the gold Taurus approach the intersection [and] then quickly cut across four lanes of travel” onto Route 10. The police officer activated his siren and overhead lights and accelerated after the Taurus. During this part of the chase, the officer was again able to visually obtain the suspect’s vehicle registration number. Audiotapes containing the transmissions that were broadcast by police on this night have been obtained. Despite repeated radio transmission requests from both his dispatcher and the “officer in charge”, that the pursuing officer provides information concerning his “speed and position”, this was never done.
When the officer was ultimately deposed and asked why he initiated a pursuit of the Taurus he responded that “there was a weapon in the vehicle. Other than that, I didn’t know if he murdered someone.” He elaborated that “…I didn’t know what type of incident he [the suspect] had been involved in.” During the earliest stage of the chase the officer also personally observed the suspect extinguish the headlights of the Taurus.
It is uncontested that no weapon was ever witnessed or recovered by anyone. Indeed, the suspect was never charged with a weapons offense as a result of his conduct on this evening.
Early in the chase, the suspect took a hard turn at a high rate of speed and lost control of his vehicle such that it was causing to “wiped out” near a ramp to Route 95. At this juncture, the pursuing officer is overhead on broadcast tapes to exclaim that “this guy is going to fuc*ing kill somebody.” Notwithstanding these facts, at his deposition, the pursuing officer would not allow that (1) he was “chasing” the suspect or that (2) the suspect’s driving at this point was “reckless.” On the first point, the officer is careful to distinguish that he was instead “monitoring” the suspect’s vehicle. Indeed, when asked at deposition if he would agree that he was “chasing” the Taurus before it “wiped out”, the officer testified that “[a]gain I prefer to use the word ‘monitor’, for the fact that I think ‘chasing’—I would not phrase it that way.” Later, the officer takes pains to explain that by “monitoring” the defendant’s vehicle he is “not, per se, trying to [stop the vehicle]. I am allowing him to basically make a decision on his own, either to pull over, keep going. And if he decides to keep going, I stay with him.” Regarding his observation of the suspect’s driving behavior, the officer has testified that “I think it could have risen [sic] to ‘reckless’ if there was more traffic [on the roadway]. But due to the fact he had four lanes and the traffic that night was relatively nothing, he had room to negotiate. If you are counting all of the lanes, you got three travel lanes and a breakdown lane, you have four lanes of travel. I think he had the room to operate. I don’t believe it was a reckless manner at that point, in my opinion.” The fact that the suspect was operating his vehicle at a high rate of speed, weaving in between cars, and operating his vehicle without headlights illuminated is of little import to the officer who insists that such conduct, in light of prevailing traffic conditions, was not “reckless.”
For example, the following exchange occurred at the officer’s deposition:
Q. “So you had no increased concern about the safety of the motoring public when he wiped out; is that what you are saying?”
Later in his deposition, he reiterated this seemingly unsupportable stance:
Q. “When he shuts the lights off and is accelerating away from you and drifts from lane to lane, is it not reckless in your mind?”
A. “He is reckless when he endangers his life, my life, or the safety of the public. At this point, he was not really endangering anybody at this point, in my opinion.”
The pursuing officer was not troubled, however, in his deliberations as to whether he should continue to pursue the gold Taurus after it “wiped out.” All things considered, he asserts he “…had ideal conditions” to do so.
Q. “You still concluded even after the wipeout that the general motoring public would not be in unreasonable danger if the chase continued?”
A. “That is true.”
Q. And it would be true even after he [the suspect] shut off his lights?”
Q “And it would be true even after he accelerated away from you at high speed?”