CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - A North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper won't face criminal charges after intentionally colliding with a speeding vehicle he was pursuing nearly a year ago. The chase brought him through Union and Anson counties, and resulted in a crash that killed two teenage passengers.
But months after the high-speed chase on March 28, the Highway Patrol revised its policy on use of the "precision immobilization technique," known as a PIT maneuver. The patrol's use of the maneuver had increased dramatically in the past two years.
The policy changes, made last July, place new limits on the speeds at which the technique may be attempted and its use when passengers are in the fleeing vehicle – circumstances that mirror the fatal crash. Highway Patrol said the changes were made under a new commander, Col. Glenn McNeill, who was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper one year ago.
The Union County chase began late one night on U.S. 74, when Trooper D.A. Motsinger tried to stop a speeding minivan. Authorities have not released full details of the pursuit but say the vehicles were going an estimated 100 mph when Motsinger performed a PIT maneuver to stop the van.
In the maneuver, an officer nudges a rear side of the fleeing vehicle, lifting the rear wheels off the pavement and causing it to spin out. Some experts contend the technique can be safely used only at relatively low speeds.
This time, the minivan left the highway and rolled over several times. Three of the four teenagers inside – all 15 years old – were thrown from it.
Passengers Maria Lopez Carbajal – her obituary listed her as Maria Asucena Carbajal Lopez – and Kandy Casterjon died. A third passenger, Jonathan Thomas, and the minivan's driver, Osiel Carbajal, the brother of Maria Carbajal, were injured.
The Highway Patrol policy in place at the time said PIT maneuvers weren't to be attempted "unless the (officer) reasonably believes that there are no children or other innocent passengers occupying the violator vehicle." But it placed no limits on how fast a trooper with Motsinger's up-to-date training could be going when he attempted the maneuver.
Days after the crash, the State Bureau of Investigation said it had opened a criminal use-of-force investigation. The state Attorney General's office began reviewing the SBI's findings last July to determine whether to bring charges against Motsinger.
Following that review, Attorney General's spokeswoman Laura Brewer said by email in early February, "Our office has declined to move forward on any criminal charges against Trooper Motsinger at this time." Motsinger is back on duty, the Highway Patrol said.
State troopers' use of PIT maneuvers had increased nearly five-fold between 2015 and 2016, Patrol data shows, from 23 incidents to 112. The maneuvers had been used 92 times through the first 10 months of 2017.
High-speed pursuits overall more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. The number of citizen injuries from chases also rose, although the data provided by the Highway Patrol doesn't show how many resulted from PIT maneuvers.
In July, however, the patrol made key changes to how PIT maneuvers are to be used. Among them were a change in the maximum speed at which the maneuvers may be attempted.
At the time of the Anson County crash, Patrol policy prohibited use of PIT maneuvers when the fleeing vehicle was traveling more than 40 mph unless troopers had received updated training in 2015. Troopers who had undergone that training – including Motsinger – had no speed limits to observe.
The number of PITs increased, the Highway Patrol says, as more troopers went through the updated training.
"Once the speed cap was lifted, it created a greater opportunity for troopers to terminate high-speed pursuits using the PIT maneuver," Master Trooper Christopher Knox, a Patrol spokesman, said by email.
The new policy says that only troopers who have completed the most current training may attempt PIT maneuvers. It limits the speed at which the maneuvers are done to 55 mph, unless the occupants of the fleeing vehicle are believed to have committed violent felonies or other circumstances that warrant the use of deadly force.
"A previous administration determined that removing the 40 mph speed cap would allow troopers to terminate an increased number of dangerous pursuits," Knox said. "The current policy, containing a 55 mph speed cap, reflects a compromise between the original 40 mph speed cap and the no-speed-cap policy of the prior administration that was in effect when Trooper Motsinger pitted the van."
Low speeds are a vital factor in whether PIT collisions end safely, says a specialist in police training and pursuit driving at the University of South Carolina. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice, said most police agencies cap the maneuvers at 40 mph. He questioned how North Carolina's Highway Patrol arrived at a higher limit.
"What's the evidence for 55 (mph), that that's not deadly force? How many have they done at 55 mph, and under what kind of conditions have they been done successfully and unsuccessfully?" Alpert said. "The more common practice is just to keep them slower."
Chase or not?
The new policy prohibits PITs if the officer has a "reasonable belief" that children or adult passengers are in the pursued vehicle, but makes an exception for adults who are believed to have been involved in criminal behavior that justifies arrest.
For the first time, troopers also now have to consider the safety of using PIT maneuvers when the fleeing vehicles are more likely to be unstable after an intentional collision. Those include pickup trucks, small cars and vans – like the vehicle that rolled in Anson County – with high centers of gravity, narrow wheelbases and small tires.
The new policy also directs troopers to consider whether "the benefit of immediateapprehension outweighs the decision to discontinue the chase."
Because high-speed pursuits pose risks to the public, Alpert said, law officers should know whether they're starting a chase to catch a speeder or a murder suspect.
"We do know that suspects slow down when the cops stop chasing," he said. "It's incredibly important that officers be trained to understand that. The kids in the (minivan) were innocent bystanders. They weren't driving."
Citizen deaths and injuries rose as Highway Patrol troopers increased the overall number of high-speed pursuits they were involved in, from 266 chases in 2015 to 584 in 2016 and 418 in 2017. It's not clear how many of the casualties had been involved in PIT maneuvers.
Four people died during pursuits in 2016 and seven more were killed in 2017, Highway Patrol data shows. No more than two deaths a year had been reported during trooper chases in the previous four years. The number of reported injuries from trooper pursuits rose from 40 in 2015 to 136 in 2016 and 122 in 2017.