We read yesterday in the paper about a tragic case in Charlotte, N.C. involving a police chase which resulted in the death of an innocent 84-year old woman who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught up in the chase, resulting in her death. According to the news reports of the incident, the police were chasing a suspected shoplifter who had committed a petty offense at a local shopping mall. Although the news reports are sketchy, it appears that the merchant called the police and shortly thereafter the police spotted the vehicle being operated by the suspected thief. A three mile chase ensued at high speeds and during the chase, the suspect lost control of his vehicle and struck the vehicle being operated by the innocent victim. Her death resulted. The petty thief has now been charged with murder.
We have blogged before in the past about the reasons why there should be policies prohibiting these kinds of chases. The death penalty to the innocent is the end result and in our judgment the death of this innocent lady cannot be justified by the need to apprehend a suspected petty thief. The news reports are sketchy as to what was stolen, but it appears that it was merchandise probably worth less than $100.00. In order to apprehend a petty thief, the police made a decision to expose innocent members of the motoring public to the possibility of serious injury or death. When balancing the risk to the public caused by a dangerous high speed chase against the need to apprehend the offender, it is our judgment, and that of many experts in the field, that public policy demands that in such circumstances, when the police are chasing a non-violent offender, they should terminate such a chase because it is foreseeable that an innocent third party might be seriously injured or killed if they do not. Because this chase happened over a three mile span, the police should have known that the suspect was not going to pull over and that the risk to the public caused by the chase itself was a greater danger to the public than was the suspect himself.
The police are defending the chase, as they always do. They are stating that the suspect was found to be on probation and had a criminal record for other theft offenses. These facts, probably discovered after the fact, were probably not known to the pursuing officer. Facts discovered after an incident can hardly justify an officer’s actions at the time of the incident. In this case, according to the news accounts, the officer only knew that the suspect he was pursuing at high speeds was a petty thief. Why would the police condone a chase where a death occurs when the need to apprehend was so slight and the danger to the public presented by a petty thief was far less than the danger to the public presented by the chase itself?
Of course, we do not know all the facts surrounding this case and can only base our views on what little information has been publicly released. Nonetheless, it is our strong belief and that of many experts throughout the country, including many involved in law enforcement, that law enforcement must do a better job of policing itself and must not condone dangerous high speed police chases in the context of a non-violent offense where the suspect/offender poses little or no danger to the public and the chase itself poses considerable dangers, oftentimes resulting in serious injury or death. This tragic case in Charlotte is no different from many others throughout the country. Indeed, our firm is handling a similar case in Augusta where the police were chasing two shoplifters which resulted in the death of three individuals. We pose the question: Was the death penalty to the innocent justified by the need to apprehend the suspect and the danger to the public presented by the petty thief? We think not.
Having said all the above, obviously, we wish to reiterate that in no way do we condone the acts of the fleeing suspects involved in these cases. They should have pulled over for the police when directed to by the blue lights. Their decision to flee was clearly a substantial contributing cause to the collision. (In some cases, these dangerous chases are justified because the suspects are known to be dangerous to the public and the risks posed by the chase are no greater than the risks posed by the suspect.) We offer no defense to the fleeing criminals, they are guilty and they should be prosecuted. But two wrongs do not make a right. The police need to acknowledge that in the context of a high speed chase, sometimes they have to let the suspect go. Statistics have shown that in those jurisdictions where the police have “No Chase” or restrictive policies (i.e. only chases for violent felonies), that this does not result in an increase in crime, moreover, usually with tag information and other police work, the suspect may be captured at a later time. Even if we, as a society, have to let a petty offender go from time to time, is this not worth it relative to the carnage inflicted in these dangerous chases when fiery, dangerous and horrible accidents occur thereafter? Is the death penalty to the innocent justified when the offender has committed a non-violent offense and poses no immediate danger to the public? Ask a victim’s family. They will not think the price was worth it, we can assure you.