Qualified Immunity Under Fire After Cop Flips Pregnant Woman's Car, Resulting in Lawsuit

Posted: Jun 11, 2021 8:45 PM
Qualified Immunity Under Fire After Cop Flips Pregnant Woman's Car, Resulting in Lawsuit

Source: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

An Arkansas police officer ran his car into a pregnant woman's SUV, flipping the vehicle, because she did not pull over soon enough, resulting in a lawsuit against the cop and other law enforcement officials employed by the state police department.

Nicole Harper was driving on a freeway in July 2020 when Arkansas State trooper Rodney Dunn turned on the lights of his cruiser and attempted to pull her over for allegedly driving 14 mph above the speed limit. 

Harper then slowed down, moved to the right lane and put on her hazard lights to signal that she saw the officer, was looking for a safe place to pull over and was not attempting to flee, which is permitted under state law.

However, Dunn still rammed his cruiser into the SUV, using a practice known as the "precision immobilization technique," resulting in the vehicle flipping into a road barrier instead of the intended ending of a spinning vehicle that eventually stops. 

The practice was used 144 times by Arkansas police in 2020 and killed three people, according to KARK, a local NBC affiliate. Nationally, 30 people have died from the police maneuver since 2016, an investigation by The Washington Post discovered. 

The dialog, as reported by KARK, found that Harper did not think she was in a safe place to stop the vehicle and that she sought the first available exit to stop her vehicle. A wider road shoulder and an exit was less than a mile away at the time of the collision.

Dunn: Why didn't you stop?

Harper: Because I didn't feel it was safe.

Dunn: Well this is where you ended up.

Harper: I thought it would be safe to wait until the exit.

Dunn: No ma'am, you pull over when law enforcement stops you.

Dunn is later heard saying, "no, we don't anticipate vehicles rolling over nor do we want that to happen" and "all you had to do was slow down and stop."

Harper told him that she "did slow down, I turned on my hazards, I thought I was doing the right thing."

The incident resulted in criticisms of the police officer, including from conservatives who have been vocal supporters of law enforcement in the past.

The actions of Dunn prompted calls for the end to qualified immunity, which protects police officers from personal legal liability.

Harper filed a lawsuit in May, suing Dunn, his supervisor Sgt. Alan Johnson and Arkansas State Police Director Col. Bill Bryant for her car being flipped last summer.

The lawsuit, as reported by KARK, alleges that Harper had “no room to safely pullover” due to the size of the road shoulder.  Dunn  “negligently” utilized the PIT maneuver that put the life of Harper and her unborn child in danger, according to the suit.

The lawsuit said Arkansas State Police “failed to train” Dunn on “proper and safe PIT maneuver technique,” did not “investigate allegations of excessive force” and “failed to discipline officers for violations of policy related to excessive force.”  

Her lawyer, Andrew Norwood of Denton & Zachary, said Dunn used "deadly force" in his attempt to stop the moving vehicle.

There was a less dangerous and more safe avenue that could have been taken before flipping her vehicle and making it bounce off a concrete barrier going 60 miles an hour.

Bryant, in a statement to local news, attempted to defend Dunn and the PIT practice by highlighting an increase in fleeing drivers and that the police practice does not occur in most pursuits.

Over the past five years Arkansas State Troopers have documented a 52 percent increase in incidents of drivers making a conscious choice to ignore traffic stops initiated by the troopers. Instead of stopping, the drivers try to flee.

State Sen. Bob Ballinger (R) told KARK that he does not want to take tools of law enforcement away but that discussions should be had on PIT practices in order to avoid residents being killed over offenses such as running a red light or fleeing.

I think it will probably be appropriate that we have a committee hearing to look at this. Find out how we’re using, what type of training, what type of limitations we have, and what are the justifications for the increase in usage of it.

However, state Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) was less willing to challenge the practices currently utilized by Arkansas police, saying that "when somebody is fleeing I will never question the method a police officer uses to stop them."

I don’t care if it’s 60 miles an hour, I don’t care if its 100 miles an hour, I want them stopped as soon as possible.