Feb. 4: After lights, sirens on I-94, lots of questions

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2009 - 11:43 AM

A state trooper rammed a Hudson, Wis., man's van on New Year's Eve and arrested him for fleeing a traffic stop because he did not quickly pull over. The driver, who had his kids along, says he was looking for a safe place to stop.

More than a month after Sam Salter wound up in the Ramsey County jail for two nights, the 40-year-old adjunct college instructor from Hudson, Wis., is still fuming. "You feel totally helpless," he said.

At the end of a New Year's Eve traffic stop on Interstate 94 in St. Paul, State Patrol Sgt. Carrie Rindal rammed Salter's 2001 Toyota Sienna van, causing $1,500 damage to his vehicle, and arrested him at gunpoint while his three children, ages 2, 3 and 6, sat in the van. His wife had to pick up the kids as he was taken to jail.

Rindal said Salter was attempting to flee. He said he was merely looking for a safe place to pull over.

The Ramsey County attorney's office declined to charge Salter after reviewing the evidence, including a video of the stop. "It was our belief there was insufficient evidence to prove that the suspect was knowingly fleeing police, and that is what he had been arrested for," said Paul Gustafson, a county attorney spokesman.

In late January, the State Patrol mailed Salter a ticket for making an illegal lane change. He faces no other charges.

The squad car's video shows that Rindal first noticed Salter about 11:40 p.m. Dec. 31. She said in a report that she had witnessed him weaving within a lane, changing lanes without signaling and going 70 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone on I-94. She turned on her lights to pull him over, and the video shows what followed: A one-mile pursuit that ended on a side street off I-94, where Salter said he had turned to look for a safe place to pull over.

It was never a high-speed chase. After Rindal rammed Salter's car -- a police tactic sometimes used for stopping fleeing vehicles -- he stopped abruptly and emerged from the van questioning why she had hit his vehicle. Rindal emerged from her squad car and, with gun drawn, forced him against the side of his vehicle and arrested him. Salter registered zero in a preliminary alcohol-breath test.

The incident raised questions among police experts who reviewed it: Should Salter have stopped on the I-94 shoulder no matter whether he considered it safe? And was Rindal right to conclude Salter was fleeing and ram his vehicle?

What the video shows

The video of the incident captured a lively debate between Rindal and Salter on those very points as he sat handcuffed on the back seat of her squad car.

"I was obviously slowing down and pulling over," Salter told the officer. "You hit me when I was next to the curb, so I don't know where you thought I was going."

Said Rindal, "When you see red lights and sirens, you don't keep on driving and driving and driving [so] you decide where you are going to stop. We decide that."

Mark Robbins, a professor of law enforcement at the University of Minnesota, Mankato, said the video does not indicate Salter was fleeing. He said the ramming was unnecessary. "If that was me, I would have cited him for failure to yield to an emergency vehicle and sent him on his way."

However, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, after hearing details of the case, said Rindal had reason to believe Salter was evading her. He said she was right to ram him. "My sympathies are with her, not with him," he said.

Lt. Mark Peterson of the State Patrol said Rindal would have no comment. And he said the patrol would not comment on the details of the case while it is conducting its own investigation, which takes place whenever there is a pursuit and an officer uses such a ramming maneuver in a traffic stop.

If Salter has a complaint, he can file one with the State Patrol's internal affairs division, Peterson said. An attorney for the state Department of Public Safety would conduct the investigation, he said.

Safety: Salter's defense

Salter, who teaches oral and interpersonal communications at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond, said he had had two beers during a six-hour period that day and was driving home from a family party, headed east on I-94 on the east side of St. Paul. His three children were strapped into the back seats.

Traveling in the left lane, he saw Rindal's flashing patrol car lights in his rear-view mirror and thought the patrol car was trying to pass. He moved right one lane, but the patrol car moved behind him, so he concluded she wanted to stop him. He shifted three lanes to the right to get to the shoulder.

"The shoulder had a big icy snowbank that did not allow me to get all the way off the freeway," Salter said.

Fearful of getting hit by traffic if he stopped, Salter said he took the U.S. Hwy. 61 exit. But he did not stop there. "It's a real blind corner," he said, "so I didn't feel comfortable stopping on that. I am not sure the people behind would have time to react if they were in the right lane."

Ahead on Hwy. 61 was the Burns Avenue cross street, and Salter signaled right. He said he was pulling to the side and estimated he was going 5 mph when Rindal used a "pursuit intervention technique," or P.I.T. maneuver, designed to knock a fleeing vehicle sideways so the driver loses control and stops. The van traveled a few more feet and stopped.

Salter got out of his van and recalls yelling, "What are you doing? I have three kids in the car." Rindal pointed her gun at Salter, arrested him, and let him call his wife, Megan Laney, to come get their children. Salter was taken to jail and booked for fleeing police. He spent most of the next 37 hours in a jail cell before being released.

Bouza, the ex-chief, said it was proper for Rindal to ram Salter's van, draw her gun and arrest him for fleeing. "She was chasing him," said Bouza. "He was ignoring her."

Bouza said it was also right for Rindal to arrest Salter for fleeing after hearing his side. "Explanations are cheap. Actions matter," he said.

But Robbins, a professor who is a former police watch commander, said the report Rindal filed describes actions that do not constitute fleeing based on Minnesota law. He said there is no indication Salter increased his speed after Rindal turned on her lights and siren, nor did he turn off his headlights or attempt evasive maneuvers. He was "simply taking more time than I would like to pull over."

Sam McCloud, a Shakopee defense attorney who has represented thousands of drivers in traffic stops, said Rindal overreacted. "He wasn't, based on my estimation, doing anything evasive," McCloud said after viewing the video. "He wasn't speeding up. He signaled his turns other than initially. If you are trying to outrun a cop, why would you signal the way you are going?"

Salter said Tuesday that in using the P.I.T. maneuver, Rindal used excessive force, and he plans to file a complaint with the State Patrol. He also plans to go to small claims court to try to get the State Patrol to pay for $1,500 in damage to his van and a $140 tow job.

"If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone," he said.

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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