By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
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."