SUPREME COURT MAY BE READY TO APPROVE POLICE CHASES

By Robert Barnes The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court relies on precedents and case law, dry recitations of fact and the sometimes bloodless decisions of the courts below it. But in a case involving a now-paralyzed teenager who instigated a high-speed police chase, most of the justices, as a sportscaster might say, went to the videotape.
And the reviews rolled in.
“He created the scariest chase I ever saw since ‘The French Connection,’ ” Justice Antonin Scalia said during Monday’s hourlong oral arguments.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Anyone who has watched that tape has got to come to [the] conclusion, looking at the road and the way that this car was swerving, and the cars coming in the opposite direction … this was a situation fraught with danger.”
Videotape, in this case taken from cameras inside the police cars, is an unusual piece of the record for Supreme Court justices to weigh, but it is at the heart of Scott v. Harris. The tape was not played Monday, but it appeared that a majority of the justices had watched it.
The case involves Coweta County Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott’s decision in 2001 to end a wild, high-speed chase over dark and wet Georgia highways by finally ramming the back of Victor Harris’ Cadillac, sending him down an embankment and flipping his car. Harris, then 19, was left a quadriplegic and has sued, claiming it was a violation of his constitutional rights for Scott to take such drastic action.
Scott has countered that his maneuver was reasonable to save others who were endangered by Harris’ unlawful driving and that, even if not, he should be granted immunity because it was not clearly established law that his action would violate Harris’ Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable seizure.
The case comes amid a backdrop of sensational high-speed police chases that have become a staple of cable-television shows and increasing debate about whether it is more dangerous for law-enforcement officers to chase and capture wrongdoers than to let them go and hope to arrest them later.
In this case, both a lower court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit have ruled in favor of Harris. The 11th Circuit said Scott’s actions constituted deadly force, and that it was unreasonable because the officer had no reason to think Harris had done anything more than violate traffic laws. The police gave chase because they clocked him going 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.

 

“Mr. Harris was simply an unsafe driver,” his attorney, Craig Jones of Atlanta, told the justices. Jones agreed that Harris should have stopped when the officers attempted to pull him over, and that the chase, which lasted six minutes and covered nine miles, involved speeds of more than 90 mph.
But he pointed out that Harris, who Jones has said panicked when police gave chase to him, did not use his car to try to assault other drivers, and that at times he even used his turn signals. That fact elicited little sympathy.
“He used the turning signal,” repeated Justice Anthony Kennedy. “That’s like the strangler who observes the no-smoking sign.”
Still, Jones argued that Supreme Court precedent holds that police may not use deadly force to stop fleeing suspects unless the suspects threaten the officer with a weapon or there is reason to believe they have committed a serious crime of physical harm or are a threat to do so.
And he said the police pursuit of his client is what created the dangerous conditions.
Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, who represents the Bush administration’s support for Scott, argued: “When a suspect disobeys a lawful command to stop, races off in a reckless attempt to elude the police, and demonstrates a disregard for his own life and the lives of others in his path, the police may use force, including deadly force, to bring the suspect’s vehicle flight to a halt and protect the public safety.”
A decision is expected before July.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
 

 

 

 

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