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Scott v. Harris: The Supreme Court decision and its impact on law enforcement

By Travis Yates

On February 26, 2007, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in one of the most anticipated Federal cases to date dealing with police pursuits. (Read the news report)

AP Photo

The case was based on a 2001 vehicular pursuit launched after a Coweta County, Georgia Deputy clocked 19-year-old Victor Harris going 73 mph in a 55 mph zone. As the pursuit entered Peachtree City, Deputy Timothy Scott joined the chase and took over as the lead vehicle. Although not yet trained in the Precision Intervention Technique (P.I.T.), Deputy Scott radioed in a request to a supervisor to perform the maneuver. The request was granted.

According to a brief from the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (12/23/2005):

"After receiving approval, Scott determined that he could not perform the PIT maneuver because he was going too fast. Instead, however, he rammed his cruiser directly into Harris' vehicle, causing Harris to lose control, leave the roadway, run down an embankment, and crash. As a result, Harris was rendered a quadriplegic."

Harris filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging the use of excessive force based on an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Both the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit stated that Deputy Scott’s actions “could constitute deadly force” as could be determined by a reasonable jury. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and law enforcement has been anticipating the outcome for some time.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had the potential to impact pursuit policy across the country. On April 30, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision, sustaining summary judgment in favor of the officer.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court; Justice Stevens filed the lone dissenting opinion. With a resounding 8-1 vote, the Court discussed a topic that is rarely discussed at the U.S. Supreme Court level: the issue of police pursuits and forcible stopping techniques.

The court simply applied the “reasonableness” test from the Fourth Amendment. Regardless of whether the action by Deputy Scott was deadly force, the court stated that “what matters is whether those actions were reasonable.” The court clearly felt that Mr. Harris “intentionally placed himself and the public in danger” by participating in a high speed pursuit.

Justice Scalia, in a powerful section of his majority opinion, writes:

“The court rules that 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.”

The lower courts had relied on the information from the suspect to determine their ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling by relying on a piece of evidence that not every officer has at his disposal. A video of the incident was taken from the dash cam of Deputy Scott’s patrol vehicle that recorded the suspect’s reckless driving.

In reference to this, Justice Scalia states:

“Indeed, reading the lower court’s opinion, one gets the impression that respondent, rather than fleeing from police, was attempting to pass his driving test.”

The video evidence was very different, and showed the suspect driving in a very reckless manner. It is obvious from the opinion that this was a major factor in the court’s decision.

In the coming weeks, there will be countless discussions and opinions on what the impact of this case will have on law enforcement. Police administrators, lawyers and the media will all take something different from the case.

A couple of points are clear from the Court’s decision:

  • This case is not about the PIT Maneuver. While Deputy Scott asked permission to utilize PIT, he determined that he was going too fast to do so, and he rammed the vehicle instead. A precision maneuver such as PIT is not the same as ramming a vehicle.
  • The Court clearly places the blame on the suspect and rejects the idea that if the police had cancelled the pursuit, the public would be safer, citing:  “. . .we are loath 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 the perverse incentives such a rule would create.” The Court went on to say that the incentive would be “escape.”
  • It is hard to say what the outcome of this case would have been if Deputy Scott did not have a video of the pursuit. The court relied on this evidence; clearly, law enforcement needs to embrace this technology. The suspect had been dishonest in his account, but Deputy Scott was protected because the incident was taped.

This decision by the Court tells law enforcement that if they engage in a vehicle pursuit that endangers the lives of “innocent bystanders,” and the fleeing motorist is at risk of serious injury or death based on the actions of an officer in pursuit, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.

While this ruling sides with law enforcement and its efforts to apprehend criminals that flee in vehicles, it should not give agencies carte blanche authority to engage in high speed pursuits and tactical maneuvers without the proper training.

While the court did not address that issue, they did discuss “reasonableness.” Providing officers with frequent training in vehicle pursuits is not only reasonable, but crucial as it will reduce the inherent risks involved in police pursuits.

Additional Resources:

Supreme Court Ruling: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1631.pdf
Eleventh Circuit Ruling: http://www.policedriving.com/HarrisvGeorgia.htm



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