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Video Persuades Justices to Back Police Use of Force to End Chase
Scott's attorney Philip W. Savrin agreed, saying the decision was not about law enforcement policies but about putting "common sense" into lawsuits against officers for Fourth Amendment violations.
Harris's attorneys had argued that Supreme Court precedent holds that police may not use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect unless the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is reason to believe he has committed a serious crime of physical harm or is a threat to do so. The only thing the police knew about Harris is that he was traveling 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.
But Scalia said that had no bearing here. "The threat posed by the flight on foot of an unarmed suspect" is not "even remotely comparable to the extreme danger to human life posed by respondent in this case," Scalia wrote.
To adopt Stevens's position that the police knew Harris's license-plate number and could have arrested him later would create "perverse incentives," Scalia said, such as letting suspects know the best way to elude capture would be to "drive so recklessly that they put other people's lives in danger."
Stevens said he agreed that Harris's "refusal to stop and subsequent flight was a serious offense that merited severe punishment. It was not, however, a capital offense, or even an offense that justified the use of deadly force rather than an abandonment of the chase."
He contended it was better for a jury and judge close to the case to make such decisions rather than "elderly appellate judges." Stevens, 87, is the oldest member of the court.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer agreed with the opinion of the court but seemed worried about Scalia's broad interpretation giving police the right to pursue suspects. Such cases are, in Ginsburg's words, "situation specific."
But all seemed entranced by the videotape in the record. Breyer wrote that because "watching the video footage of the car chase made a difference to my own view of the case, I suggest that the interested reader . . . watch it."
And Scalia said it was one way to settle the differences he had with Stevens.
"Justice Stevens suggests that our reaction to the videotape is somehow idiosyncratic, and seems to believe we are misrepresenting its contents," Scalia wrote in a footnote. "We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself."