- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007


Police may use tactics that put fleeing suspects at risk of death to end high-speed car chases, the Supreme Court said yesterday in ruling against a Georgia teenager who was paralyzed after his car was run off the road.

In a case that turned in part on a video of the chase in suburban Atlanta, the court said it is reasonable for law-enforcement officers to try to stop a fleeing motorist to prevent harm to bystanders or other drivers.

“A police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion.

The court sided 8-1 with former Coweta County Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Scott, who rammed a fleeing black Cadillac on a two-lane, rain-slicked road in March 2001. The nighttime chase reached speeds of up to 90 miles an hour.

Victor Harris, the 19-year-old driver of the Cadillac, lost control and his car ended up at the bottom of an embankment. Mr. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic.

The court, in a nod to modern technology, for the first time posted the dramatic video on its Web site.

Many large police forces have strict rules for when officers can begin high-speed pursuit, limiting chases to instances involving a felony crime, a misdemeanor crime involving a weapon or suspected drunken drivers who are an obvious road hazard.

Mr. Harris was wanted only for speeding.

More than 350 people died each year on average from 1994 to 2004 because of police chases, a group of Georgia police chiefs said in court papers in this case.

Mr. Harris sued Deputy Scott after the crash, arguing that the decision to ram the Cadillac violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

Lower federal courts had ruled the lawsuit could proceed, but the Supreme Court said the officer could not be sued for his actions. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

Justice Scalia described a “Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury.”

During oral argument, justices repeatedly invoked the video to support how recklessly they thought Mr. Harris was driving.

Justice Stevens, however, said a district court judge and three appellate judges who watched the same video concluded otherwise. Those judges determined that the issue should be decided after a trial, not by a judge in a pretrial ruling.

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