Video Persuades Justices to Back Police Use of Force to End Chase
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
The Supreme Court said yesterday that police officers may use potentially deadly force to end a high-speed chase of a suspect who has put the public at risk, with the justices greatly influenced by a videotape of a treacherous pursuit through dark Georgia highways that left the driver paralyzed.
The 8 to 1 decision was an important victory for law enforcement officials and was unusual for the way the justices became intensely involved in the details of the case. They said the videotape of the 2001 chase, captured by cameras in the pursuing patrol cars, clearly showed that two lower courts were wrong to hold that a deputy sheriff who had rammed the suspect's car could be held liable for his actions.
In an unprecedented move for the tradition-bound court, justices posted the videotape on its Web site and encouraged the public to take a look at what the decision called a "Hollywood-style chase."
"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," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.
Justice John Paul Stevens was the lone dissenter, saying the justices so persuaded by the videotape had "usurped the jury's factfinding function." He called it an "unprecedented departure" for the court in evaluating evidence that should be left to lower courts.
The case involves Coweta County Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott's decision to end the chase by ramming the back of Victor Harris's Cadillac, sending him down an embankment and flipping his car. Harris, then 19, was left a quadriplegic and sued, claiming that taking such drastic action violated his constitutional rights.
Scott has said his actions were warranted because of the danger Harris posed to pedestrians, other drivers and police officers, and he said his official actions should be covered by immunity.
In making such immunity decisions, courts are bound to view the facts in light most favorable to the person suing, because a granting of immunity effectively ends the case. A district judge and an appeals court said the case should go to a jury.
But Scalia wrote that the courts were leaning so toward Harris as to create a "visible fiction."
He added: "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, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury."
Police departments across the country in recent years have tightened their policies on when officers should pursue fleeing suspects. Some of those involved in the case said the decision was unlikely to change that trend.
"One of the reasons it won't result in more pursuits," said Frank V. Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, is that local government officials who make the policies "don't want the public endangered or the criticism that comes with it."