Supreme Court seems unmoved by plea to curtail high-speed pursuit by police Constitutional right to sue officer is at issue in case of youth killed in chase

December 10, 1997|By Lyle Denniston DTC | Lyle Denniston DTC,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A lawyer urged the Supreme Court yesterday to crack down hard on high-speed police chases, saying they kill a person a day nationwide. But the justices did not seem inclined to take the suggestion.

The lawyer, Paul J. Hedlund, who represents a California couple whose 16-year-old son died as a result of a police pursuit, made a highly emotional plea for a new constitutional right to sue police and local governments when a pursuing officer kills or maims someone -- either someone being chased or a bystander.

The justices tried repeatedly to cut off Hedlund's recital, to get him to focus on the legal fine points, but the lawyer managed to go on with an aroused denunciation of reckless officers. The court did not appear moved by it.

The reason the constitutional claim is being fought by police departments, Hedlund said, "is because they want to continue" such chases. "They want to continue killing people," he boldly asserted.

If such deaths were "an isolated event, it wouldn't come to this court's attention," Hedlund argued. But, deaths, he said, "are occurring one a day."

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that four police officers and 373 civilians were killed in police pursuits in 1996 and that the total has been around 300 in every year since 1992.

For Maryland alone, the agency's figures dating to 1986 indicate that 10 police officers and 33 civilians have died in chases.

Yesterday, hearing an appeal by Sacramento County and an officer involved in a 1990 chase, several justices expressed skepticism that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "liberty" should include a right not to be killed or injured by a pursuing police officer.

When Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wondered whether those who wrote the 1868 amendment on which Hedlund relies intended to deal with high-speed auto chases and suggested that they envisioned only "carriage chases," Hedlund saw no humor.

"Carriages," he shot back, "do not wreak the havoc of a 4,000-pound vehicle."

Hedlund lambasted the officer involved in the chase, saying he undertook the dangerous pursuit after being provoked solely by "the revving of a motorcycle" near him.

Hedlund's clients, Teri and Tom Lewis of Pilot Hill, Calif., have been allowed by a federal appeals court to sue Sacramento County and a deputy sheriff for the death of their son, Philip. He was on the back of a motorcycle that was being pursued by a sheriff's deputy through a Sacramento suburb in 1990 at speeds of up to 100 mph.

The motorcycle skidded to a stop just over a hill. Philip Lewis was standing in the street when the deputy's car sped over the hill and struck him, causing massive internal injuries. He died at the scene. The other youth, who had been driving, was not hurt.

Federal courts have received a rising number of lawsuits over deaths or injuries in high-speed chases but have not agreed on when, if ever, police or governments should be required to pay damages and what standard of legal responsibility should be used.

With little success, the justices pressed both the county's lawyer, Terence J. Cassidy, and the Lewises' lawyer, Hedlund, to spell out a precise standard of responsibility if such a right were declared.

Cassidy suggested that authorities should be blamed only if a police chase intentionally did harm or was so outrageously reckless that it "shocked the conscience."

Hedlund said blame should follow a lower standard: when an officer "disregards a known risk." Justice David H. Souter retorted that, if that were the standard, "There never could be a high-speed chase. There is always going to be a known risk."

The court is expected to rule on the case by next summer.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.