Supreme Court shields police from lawsuits related to chases Justices set high standard for collecting damages from high-speed pursuits

May 27, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When the police kill or injure someone or tear up property during a high-speed chase, they can be sued only if they actually intended "to terrorize, cause harm, or kill," the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Setting a high obstacle for lawsuits against police who race through city streets in pursuit of fleeing suspects, the court said officers need wide discretion to react instantly to "unforeseen circumstances."

The fact that an officer's chase is reckless, and even deliberately reckless, the court said in an opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, is not enough to produce liability damages.

A police officer, Souter wrote, needs to balance the goal of stopping suspects against the threat to suspects, their passengers, other drivers and bystanders. Those obligations "tug against each other," complicating the choices an officer makes in a high-speed chase, the opinion noted.

In that situation, the court said, only an intent to inflict harm would "shock the conscience" -- the standard the court set for police to be held liable for damages.

The ruling absolved a deputy sheriff in Sacramento County, Calif., for the death of a 16-year-old youth after a chase at speeds up to 100 mph in 1990.

There is no evidence, the court said, that the deputy intended to harm the youth, Philip Lewis, who was a passenger on a fleeing motorcycle driven by another youth. After the motorcycle skidded to a stop over the crest of a hill, the sheriff's car shot over the crest at about 65 mph. Lewis, standing in the road, was struck and killed.

All nine justices supported the ruling in favor of the deputy, though only six justices agreed with Souter's main opinion.

The court acted on the case amid a flurry of actions. The justices expanded the volume of their output as they begin a rush toward adjourning for the summer at the end of June.

Drug use, pregnancy

In a significant order, the court turned down the first case to reach it that challenges states' power to prosecute women for using drugs, alcohol or other harmful substances during pregnancy.

In that case, the South Carolina Supreme Court became the first high court in the state or federal judiciary to rule that an unborn fetus is a "child" eligible for protection against abuse or neglect. Four other state supreme courts have ruled against that view of state child abuse laws, and lower courts in 20 other states have similarly rejected such an approach.

As a result of the action, two South Carolina mothers -- Cornelia Whitner and Malissa Ann Crawley -- will remain in prison after being convicted of child abuse for using cocaine during pregnancy.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the women contended that it was unconstitutional to extend child endangerment laws to substance use during pregnancy.

Lynn Paltrow, a women's rights attorney who is representing the women, said the Supreme Court's denial of review "should not be taken as a message that" states now have constitutional support for such prosecutions.

Still, she voiced regret at the court's action, saying the South Carolina ruling led to a drop in the number of pregnant women using drug treatment facilities in the state, out of fear of prosecution.

Women's rights groups said they would continue to mount other challenges to such prosecutions, in South Carolina and elsewhere. Authorities in Louisiana, North Dakota and Utah have been studying the possibility of prosecuting such cases.

The National Right to Life Committee, while satisfied with the Supreme Court's order, said the justices should have used the case for a ruling that would have barred women from aborting fetuses.

In a third criminal law action, in a California case that will have an immediate effect in Maryland, the court made it harder for death row inmates to bar states from speeding up executions.

Under a 1996 federal law, states may demand earlier deadlines and swifter rulings when murderers seek to challenge their convictions or death sentences. But a state may do so only if it guarantees death row inmates access to competent lawyers -- free, if necessary -- to handle their challenges.

Death row appeals

Inmates in California and Maryland, among other states, contend that those states do not adequately ensure legal aid for death row inmates and should not be eligible for the faster processing of capital punishment cases.

Those inmates went to court, seeking rulings that their states did not qualify for the faster procedures. They wanted that issue cleared up before they filed individual challenges to their convictions and sentences.

The court ruled yesterday that federal courts lack power to decide a state's eligibility for the speedier processes until inmates have sued to test their convictions and sentences. State eligibility will be sorted out one case at a time, rather than in one ruling affecting all of a state's inmates.

The issue of Maryland's eligibility for quickening the capital punishment process has been raised in a Supreme Court appeal by five death row inmates. The Supreme Court is likely to act on that case in the wake of yesterday's ruling.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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