Sandra Silasavage hardly looks like a flight risk. Yet that’s what a St. Lucie County sheriff’s deputy claimed after he used an aggressive driving technique to force her off the road, flipping her SUV on its side in the process.
Silasavage, 62, is handicapped with a chronic spinal condition that barely allows her to walk. She was charged with fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer because she did not pull over when instructed to do so.
Her 2008 Ford Expedition was totaled in the wreck, she’s out thousands of dollars and her life has been turned upside down.
Silasavage, who lives in western St. Lucie County not far from the Okeechobee County line, was returning home on State Road 70 on the evening of Oct. 28 after shopping in Fort Pierce. She said she had set her cruise control at 55 mph — the posted speed limit — when she noticed a deputy’s patrol car behind her.
The deputy did not have his lights or siren on at first, Silasavage said. She noticed him come alongside her, heard his siren and then “everything went crazy.” Her car left the road, rolled and ended up on the driver’s side, with Silasavage hanging upside down in her seatbelt.
After breaking her back in a horseriding accident in the 1970s and subsequent unsuccessful surgeries, Silasavage’s spine is severely bent and twisted. She walks doubled over and has a morphine pump surgically implanted near her spine to alleviate constant pain.
Deputy Sean Freeman, a 10-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, noted in his report Silasavage seemed slumped over the wheel and she did not slow down from her “consistent 57 mph” when he turned on his blue lights. So he initiated a maneuver that’s called Precision Immobilization Technique, or P.I.T., an aggressive technique used to stop fleeing vehicles by tapping their rear bumper and spinning them off the road. Use of the maneuver is at the officer’s discretion, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s pursuit guidelines.
Silasavage’s criminal defense attorney, Josh Deckard, said the P.I.T. maneuver should be used only when a fleeing driver could pose a public safety hazard or cause loss of life. Deckard spent 15 years in law enforcement in Palm Beach County and taught defensive driving techniques before becoming a lawyer.
Deckard said the use of the P.I.T. maneuver was unwarranted.
“Why is this not called deadly force when it’s used by a law enforcement officer?” he asked. “Out of 32 law enforcement agencies in Palm Beach County, nearly all prohibit chases like this except in the most deadly circumstances.”
Deckard went on to explain that the P.I.T. maneuver should be used only in situations such as bank robbery pursuits or where firearms have been used.
Silasavage said she did not see Freeman’s lights and heard his siren only a few seconds before her vehicle was forced off the road. It wasn’t until hours later at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center that she realized what had happened.
“I thought my car had gone out of control,” she said.
She also was charged with possession of four oxycodone pills. She claims they were given to her a year ago by a friend and that she never has used that medication.
“I was so angry. I could not believe he did that while I was trying to pull over,” Silasavage said. “I can’t understand it. He said he was concerned we were close to a construction site, but that’s another four miles farther west.”
The Sheriff’s Office policy notes that “if in the judgment of the deputy, the fleeing vehicle must be stopped immediately to safeguard life and preserve the public safety, the P.I.T. maneuver may be used.”
None of those factors seem to apply in this case, on a quiet stretch of highway on a Sunday evening. If Silasavage really had been fleeing, why didn’t she speed up?
The Sheriff’s Office would not comment because Silasavage has retained legal counsel. Sheriff’s spokesman Mark Weinberg did say Freeman has a spotless driving record and an internal administrative review of the case has not altered the office’s view that his action was acceptable.
The Sheriff’s Office began using the P.I.T. maneuver in 2010, Weinberg said, and since then its use has accelerated from two cases a year to 13 so far in 2012.
The deputy’s actions seem like overkill to me. Even if he was concerned about an apparently impaired driver, why did he not simply pull in front of Silasavage to try to stop her?
“It’s ludicrous,” Silasavage said. “Fleeing and eluding? Ridiculous. Just take a look at me. Are you kidding? The inmates at Rock Road all fell about laughing when they heard what I’d been charged with. I was sitting in a wheelchair.”
Silasavage’s case has yet to go to court. Let’s hope some sanity prevails when it does.