Shield is likely in police chases

High court signals officers won't be liable if they use force to stop fleeing vehicles

February 27, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices, hearing arguments on high-speed police chases, signaled yesterday that they are likely to shield officers from being sued if they ram a fleeing car and drive it off the road.

Most of the justices said a speeding car poses an extraordinary danger to other motorists and might justify the use of force to stop the fleeing suspect.

In a case before the court, a 19-year-old in a black Cadillac sped through red lights and raced at more than 90 mph on a two-lane road in rural Georgia. The fleeing motorist was paralyzed after a police cruiser hit his car and sent it over an embankment.

That was "the scariest chase I ever saw since The French Connection, said Justice Antonin Scalia, describing the police videotape of the chase that was supplied to the court. "It was frightening ... cars coming in the opposite direction, at night, on a two-lane, winding road."

Other justices said they had watched the videotape and were convinced that police acted reasonably when they decided to force the fleeing car off the road.

Over the past decade, most police departments have adopted guidelines to limit such chases because of the danger. Nonetheless, more that 300 people are killed each year as a result of high-speed pursuits. Most of the victims are motorists who tried to flee, but a substantial number are innocent bystanders.

Eight years ago, the Supreme Court shielded police from being sued in federal court for recklessly chasing a fleeing motorist. But the justices left open the possibility that officers could be sued if they used force to stop a car.

That issue was before the court in the case heard yesterday. Victor Harris, the paralyzed driver, sued Deputy Timothy Scott, alleging that the ramming of his car amounted to excessive use of force.

The chase began on a March night in 2001. Harris was clocked at 73 mph on a highway where the speed limit was 55. When a police officer flashed his blue light, Harris sped away. He was chased through the parking lot of a small shopping center, where he collided with a police car.

Undeterred, Harris raced down a winding, two-lane road, sped through red lights and swerved back and forth to avoid other cars.

"Go ahead and take him out," a police supervisor radioed to Scott. The deputy hit the rear bumper of the Cadillac, sending it into a spin and off the road.

In their comments and questions, the justices said the police officer acted reasonably.

Harris "created a tremendous risk for drivers on that road," said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"We are talking about 90 miles an hour on a two-lane highway, swerving past cars," added Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Harris had "created a substantial risk of serious bodily harm to others. How would a jury find otherwise?" asked Justice David H. Souter.

Harris' lawyers said the young man had been driving "under control" and used his turn signals when he changed lanes.

"He used the turning signal. That's like the strangler who observes the `no smoking' sign," interjected Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Despite the scary scene captured on the police video, Harris won two preliminary victories in lower courts.

More than 20 years ago, the high court had said an officer may not use "deadly force" to stop a fleeing suspect unless he poses a risk to the public or the police. That ruling arose when a police officer, answering a burglary call, encountered a teenage boy in a backyard and shot him in the back of the head.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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