Court OKs deadly force to stop speeding driver posing danger

May 01, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police may use deadly force to stop a speeding motorist who ignores warnings and poses a danger to the public.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices threw out a lawsuit brought by a Georgia teenager who sped away from police and led them on a high-speed chase down narrow, two-lane roads. The youth was paralyzed when a police cruiser rammed into the back of his car and sent it careening off the road.

In a first for the court, the justices said they had decided the case based on watching a police videotape of the incident.

A federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals in Atlanta had said that a jury should hear the Georgia teenager's case and decide whether the deputy's decision to ram the fleeing car amounted to an "unreasonable seizure." The Fourth Amendment forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures."

The justices concluded that "no reasonable jury" could rule against the deputy.

Victor Harris, 19, was speeding in a black Cadillac "in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, cross the double-yellow line and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit."

A ruling against the police could have forced law enforcement departments around the country to limit their car chases.

Yesterday's decision was the second in a decade that largely shields police from being sued in federal court for pursuing a speeding car.

In 1998, the court said police cannot be sued for recklessness during a high-speed urban chase. Officers often are "forced to make split-second judgments," the court said, and should not be liable for a chase that appears unwise in retrospect.

At issue yesterday was whether police are permitted to use force to stop a fleeing car. In the past, the court had said police may not shoot to kill an unarmed fleeing suspect who poses no immediate danger. That is known as the "deadly force" rule.

Lawyers for the Georgia teenager cited the rule when they sued deputy Timothy Scott for "intentionally ramming" Harris' car and sending him off the road.

Harris was clocked at 73 mph in a 55-mph zone when an officer flashed his blue lights. Rather than pull over, Harris sped up and led the police on a chase for nine miles at speeds of up to 90 mph.

Harris' lawyers argued that the police created greater danger by chasing him at high speed than by letting him get away.

The court disagreed.

"We are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people's lives at risk," Scalia said in Scott v. Harris.

"Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: 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," he said.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said he worried that the court had gone too far and, in effect, given a green light to reckless, high-speed chases that could endanger the public.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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