Lessons from the Janice Harper PIT Maneuver Case
Well after dark on a summer night in 2020, Janice Harper, a pregnant woman traveling alone, sped down Arkansas’s U.S. 67/167 highway. A state trooper clocked her driving 84 in a 70-mph zone. He switched on his flashers, signaling for Harper to pull over. The three-lane highway had narrow shoulders lined by a wall. She didn’t think it was safe, and she was uncomfortable stopping in such a remote place at night.
Perhaps you’ve heard advice about what to do in such a circumstance. Some common suggestions are to slow down, put your hazards on to signal to the officer that you understand you’re being stopped, and find a nearby, well-lit area to stop where you can both feel safe. It’s a sentiment expressed in the press and even on insurance company websites, but according to Stan Campbell, a retired Oklahoma City Police lieutenant and founder of DOPE the Movement, this advice is deeply flawed.
“When a patrol officer signals a stop, they expect you to stop right away,” Stan says. “The farther you go, the more suspicious and the more anxious the officer might become, and it heightens the tension felt by both parties during an encounter.”
Stan has the law on his side, especially in Arkansas where Harper found herself being pulled over. State police issued a press statement that said: “There’s a fundamental state law none of us should ever forget. . . The language of the law is crystal clear. Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle displaying the signal to stop, the driver must pull over and stop.”
That’s not what Janice Harper did that night. She didn’t stop. Instead, dashcam video shows her putting her right turn signal on, merging into the right lane, and slowing down. Seconds later, she switches on her hazards but maintains a highway speed. For nearly two minutes she continues driving; there is no break in the wall running parallel to the tight shoulder. Just after two minutes into the pursuit, the officer performs a PIT maneuver — a precision immobilization technique where the officer nudges the back of the car being pursued to cause the vehicle to spin out and stop.
In this case, Harper’s vehicle didn’t just spin out, it crashed into a wall and flipped over. In the dashcam video, when the officer approaches the overturned vehicle, Haper says, “I thought it would be safer to wait until the exit.” “No ma’am,” the officer replies, “you pull over when law enforcement stops you.”
The officer has received significant criticism for his decision to perform the PIT maneuver under those circumstances, including an opinion published by the editorial board of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazzette which cites instructions from the Arkansas Driver License Study Guide which states: “. . . activate your turn signal or emergency flashers to indicate to the officer that you are seeking a safe place to stop.”
While Harper followed this part of the instruction, the guide goes on to say: “If you are unsure if you are being stopped by an actual police officer, activate your turn signal or emergency flashers, and pull to the nearest well-lit location, or dial 9-1-1 and request confirmation that an actual police officer is attempting to stop you.”
There’s no suggestion in any of the news reports or in the lawsuit Harper filed against the Arkansas State Police that she ever attempted to call 9-1-1, and her own comments moments after the incident suggest that she didn’t doubt that the officer was a legitimate state trooper, implying only that she didn’t feel it was a safe place to pull over.
Stan Campbell acknowledges that the location was unsafe — particularly for the officer, and he says the trooper was ill-advised to choose that location to initiate the stop. Nonetheless, Stan says, “Let the officer worry about his or her safety. Normally, when they decide to pull you over, they have chosen that spot-on purpose.” He notes that officers often might not initiate a stop until miles after an infraction incurred if they don’t feel the environment is appropriate.
Whether or not the officer in the Harper case acted appropriately can be debated, but it looks pretty clear that he acted within the law, and both his law enforcement agency and the Arkansas Attorney General are standing behind his actions. Stan says, “If Harper was really concerned with her safety, she could have called 9-1-1, explained her situation, and the dispatcher would likely have connected with the patrol officer, and that could have averted the ultimate confrontation.”
Stan founded DOPE the Movement to educate law enforcement agencies and the public about how to de-escalate officer patrol encounters. There is a lesson to be learned from the Harper case for law enforcement officers: wait until there is a safe place for the citizen to pull over before initiating a stop. However, there is an important lesson here for motorists as well, and that is to pull over immediately when a police officer signals a stop. It’s good to find the safest practical place to pull over, and it’s good to have the officer’s safety in mind, but two minutes is objectively too long to travel without stopping or dialing 9-1-1 to express your personal safety concerns about the encounter.
SHAWN VINCENT – LITIGATION CONSULTANT
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