Suspect pursuit case reaches Supreme Court
A police cruiser rammed a black Cadillac from behind as they raced along a wet, two-lane road near Atlanta at roughly 90 mph. The Cadillac's 19-year-old driver lost control and ended up at the bottom of an embankment, paralyzed.
Victor Harris was being chased by police because he had been speeding. He said later he was too frightened to stop. Coweta County sheriff's Deputy Timothy Scott said he wanted to end the chase before other drivers or pedestrians were hurt.
Mr. Harris sued Mr. Scott for violating his civil rights and the case has reached the Supreme Court, where it will be argued tomorrow. Mr. Scott, who left the sheriff's office for another law-enforcement job in Georgia, wants the justices to conclude that his actions, captured on the dashboard camera of his car, were reasonable and dismiss the lawsuit.
The case puts the court in the middle of a national debate over high-speed chases. More than 350 people died each year on average from 1994 to 2004 because of police chases in the United States, a group of Georgia police chiefs said in court papers.
It also is the first time in more than 20 years the court will consider constitutional limits on police use of deadly force to stop fleeing suspects. Courts define deadly force as creating a substantial risk of death or serious injury.
The issue confronting the justices is whether Deputy Scott's decision to ram the Cadillac violated Mr. Harris' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Even if the court decides the deputy's action was unconstitutional, it still will have to decide whether it should have been clear to him at the time that ramming the car was unlawful.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta said the law was clear at the time of the incident in March 2001.
"The use of deadly force is not 'reasonable' in a high-speed chase based only on a speeding violation and traffic infractions where there was little, if any, threat to pedestrians or other motorists as the roads were mostly empty and Harris remained in control of his vehicle," the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
Mr. Scott's lawyer, Philip Savrin of Atlanta, and the Bush administration said the deputy's decision should not be judged with the benefit of hindsight.
If the court upholds the appeals court ruling, the case would proceed to a trial. If Mr. Scott wins, Mr. Harris' suit will be dismissed.
The chase lasted six minutes.
Mr. Scott and the government both argued in court papers that the force was not excessive.
"By continuing to flee in a vehicle, the suspect does not merely seek to elude capture, but risks harming the public [intentionally or unintentionally] in the process," Mr. Savrin said.
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, said the tragic consequences should not obscure that Mr. Harris demonstrated he was dangerous by driving recklessly and continuing to flee even after colliding with Deputy Scott's car.