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High-Speed Chase Suspects Cannot Sue Police

Date Posted to Site: 05/01/2007

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave police officers significant protection from lawsuits by suspects who lead them on car chases.

The justices ruled 8-1 against Georgia teenager Victor Harris, who was left a quadriplegic after a police vehicle rammed his car off the road in 2001.

A police officer used "reasonable force" when ramming the teen's speeding car, the high court ruled. A videotape of the pursuit played a key role in the decision. (Watch the Cadillac flip on its side )

"The car chase that [Harris] initiated in this case posed substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "[Deputy Timothy] Scott's attempt to terminate the chase by forcing [Harris] off the road was reasonable."

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Harris' lawsuit against the deputy could go forward. The justices overturned the lower court ruling, meaning the suit can be dismissed.

Eight of the nine justices said they had closely viewed the videotape of the six-minute nighttime chase. It was taken from the dashboard of Scott's car and from the vehicle of another deputy from a neighboring county.

Similar pursuits have been aired, sometimes live, on many cable and broadcast television stations, and entire programs have been built around such incidents, such as "World's Wildest Police Chases."

Tape fascinates justices
The tape seemed to fascinate some of the justices. Scalia referred to the videotape repeatedly in his opinion, calling it a "wrinkle" that clearly swayed the bench.

Departing from the lower court's conclusions, Scalia wrote, "The videotape tells a different story."

He continued, "Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at greater risk of serious injury."

Harris, 19 at the time, was driving on a suspended license, when he refused to pull over for speeding. The police video shows him accelerating at speeds more than 100 mph, leading officers across two counties outside Atlanta. He can be seen crossing the double yellow line on the road to pass about three dozen cars.

At one point, Harris is shown pulling into a shopping center parking lot, with Scott, a Coweta County deputy, and two colleagues trying to block him. Harris then hits Scott's vehicle while fleeing. The officer radios his supervisor, requesting permission to use potentially deadly force to stop Harris.

"Let me have him, my car's already tore up," Scott says on the tape.

Police tactics described
The supervisor gives permission for the PIT maneuver -- precision intervention technique -- which involves the police car tapping the pursued vehicle at an angle so that it spins out. "Go ahead and take him out," the supervisor orders.

But Scott later said Harris was going too fast and he was worried about other drivers on the road, so the officer rammed the escaping Cadillac directly with his push bumper, causing it to go airborne down an embankment and crash.

Now 25, Harris resides at an assisted-living facility. He refused an interview to discuss the case, as did Scott. In previous testimony, Harris said he was scared when officers first turned on their sirens and that he did not want his car impounded.

"[Harris'] version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him," Scalia said. "The Court of Appeals should not have relied on such visible fiction; it should have viewed the facts in the light depicted by the videotape."

The lone dissenter was Justice John Paul Stevens, who made his views known in a rare oral summary during Monday's public session. He said the other justices got carried away by the tape.

"I can only conclude that my colleagues were unduly frightened by two or three images on the tape," Stevens noted.

The justice said it was not clear the chase threatened the lives of other citizens since the roads were mostly empty. "The risk inherent in justifying unwarranted police conduct on the basis of unfounded assumptions are unacceptable, particularly when less dramatic measures ... could have avoided such a tragic result," he cautioned.

Deadly force in car chases
It was the first time the high court has heard a case involving the use of deadly force in police chases, and federal appeals courts have been split on the issue. Under generally applied Supreme Court precedents, an officer must show a suspect poses a "significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others" before using deadly force.

And other federal courts have said officers can be stripped of qualified immunity from lawsuits if every "reasonable" law enforcement official would have known his actions were violating clearly established law.

Law enforcement groups argued a ruling against Scott would hamstring every police official, who often would have to make split-second decisions about whether to wait until someone gets hurt -- including innocent victims or the officer himself -- before they could stop escaping motorists.

Legal analysts said it was not surprising the conservative court under Chief Justice John Roberts was inclined to give officers the kind of discretion they have sought, particularly since 9/11.

"Nobody is going to suddenly say its OK to use deadly force against a fleeing felon who poses no threat to society," said Edward Lazarus, a Supreme Court legal analyst. "They're just going to say, I think, that a speeding car going down a two-lane road at 100 mph is, in and of itself, necessarily a danger."

Other developments
In other cases, the Court:

" Rejected an appeal from two suspected terrorists imprisoned at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who continue to challenge their upcoming trials before a U.S. military commission. Salim Hamdan and Omar Khadr sought federal court oversight in the wake of a congressional law limiting their legal appeals outside the military justice system. The decision by the high court not to get involved for now means scheduled trials later this year for Hamdan, Khadr and about 10 other men can move forward.

" Agreed to decide the fate of a Mexican murderer on death row in Texas in an unusual capital appeal involving federal authority, state sovereignty, and foreign treaties. Jose Medellin faces execution for the gang rape and murder of two teenagers. At issue is whether the state must give in to demands by President Bush to allow the prisoner new court hearings and a criminal trial. An international court said Medellin was improperly denied access to his consulate before his original prosecution, a violation of a treaty signed by the U.S. decades ago.

Oral arguments will be held this fall.

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