The U.S. Supreme Court just issued a ruling giving police officers significant protection from lawsuits filed by suspects who lead them on high-speed chases — then crash.
Victor Harris, 19, was exceeding the speed limit when a deputy activated his blue flashing lights. Instead of pulling over, Harris sped off on a two-lane road at night at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.
Harris evaded a police trap, then took off again with a string of officers following. Six minutes and 10 miles after the chase had begun, Officer Scott asked for permission to employ the Precision Intervention Technique (PIT) maneuver, which causes a fleeing vehicle to spin to a stop. He was told "go ahead and take him out."
Instead, Officer Scott applied his push bumper to the rear of Harris' vehicle causing the vehicle to leave the roadway, run down an embankment and overturn. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic.
Harris sued deputy Scott and others claiming a violation of his federal constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free of "an unreasonable search and seizure," specifically the seizure.
The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals found that Scott's pushing on the rear of the car constituted "deadly force" so he was not immune from a lawsuit. Victory for Harris. Temporary victory.
Eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices watched a video tape of the chase from a camera on Scott's vehicle. The justices were clearly fascinated by the tape and found it told a story different than Harris': "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.
First car chase case
This is the first time the Supreme Court has heard a police chase case. They concluded Harris posed a "significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others" before Scott implemented his deadly force push tactic.
Justice Scalia, one of the most conservative justices on the court, wrote the opinion, so you know he landed on the side of the police. And indeed the entire court, did with only Justice Stevens dissenting.
Just back off
One of the arguments Justice Scalia used that made sense to me was, as he wrote, "We are loathe 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 in danger. It is obvious what perverse incentives such a rule would create: every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times and runs a few red lights. The Constitution assuredly does not impose this invitation to immunity-earned-by-recklessness. Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: A police officer's attempt to terminate a 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."
My favorite Justice, Breyer, agreed with the conclusion of the majority opinion; however, he felt that Justice Scalia's statement of law was too absolute, that under some chase circumstances, whether a high-speed chase violates the Fourth Amendment may depend on the specific facts.
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