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Justices side with police on chase case

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Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may use deadly force to stop a speeding motorist who ignores warnings and poses a danger to the public.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices threw out a lawsuit brought by a Georgia teenager who was paralyzed after a police cruiser rammed the back of his car and sent it careening off the road. The teenager had sped away from police and led them on a high-speed chase down narrow two-lane roads.

In a first for the high court, the justices said they decided the case based on watching a police videotape of the incident.

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Earlier, a federal judge and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had said a jury should hear the Georgia teenager’s case and decide whether the deputy’s decision to ram the fleeing car amounted to an “unreasonable seizure.” The 4th Amendment forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But after studying the tape, the justices concluded “no reasonable jury” could rule against the deputy.

“What we see on the video ... closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

In the video, Victor Harris, the 19-year-old suspect, speeds in a black Cadillac “in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast. We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, cross the double-yellow line and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit,” Scalia said.

“We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself,” Scalia said in a footnote, directing interested viewers to the court’s website -- www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/06slipopinion.html -- where there is a link to a video file next to the Scott v. Harris citation.

A ruling against the police could have forced law enforcement agencies around the country to limit their involvement in car chases. Monday’s decision was the second in a decade that largely shielded police from being sued in federal court for pursuing a speeding car.

In 1998, the court said the police cannot be sued for recklessness when they set off on a high-speed chase in an urban area. Officers are often “forced to make split-second judgments,” the high court said then, and they should not be liable for setting off on a chase that appeared unwise in retrospect. In that decision, a teenager on a motorcycle in Sacramento was killed after a police officer chased him at speeds of up to 100 mph.

At issue Monday was whether police could go further and use force to stop a fleeing car. In the past, the court has said the police may not shoot to kill an unarmed fleeing suspect who poses no immediate danger. This is known as the “deadly force” rule.

Lawyers for the Georgia teenager cited the rule against deadly force when they sued Deputy Timothy Scott for “intentionally ramming” Harris’ car and sending him off the road.

Just before the ramming, a supervisor radioed Scott and said: “Go ahead. Take him out.”

Harris was clocked going 73 in a 55-mph zone when an officer flashed his blue lights. Harris sped up and led police on a chase for nine miles at speeds of up to 90 mph.

Lawyers for Harris argued the police created a greater danger by chasing the suspect at a high speed rather than let him get away.

The high court disagreed. “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,” Scalia wrote.

He continued: “Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: A police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the 4th Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed in full. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer said they agreed that Scott acted reasonably, but they disagreed with the broad rule Scalia announced.

High-speed police chases have been the subject of continuing dispute in recent years -- including in California -- because innocent people are sometimes injured or killed. Most police departments have adopted rules that limit the circumstances under which officers may initiate a pursuit.

For its part, the Supreme Court has said it is not willing to have judges and juries decide whether police acted reasonably.

In a solo dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said he worried the court had gone too far and, in effect, given a green light to the kind of reckless, high-speed chases that would endanger the public.

Had the police broken off the chase in this case, they could easily have arrested the driver at his home, because they had his license number, he said.

Because the context counts, the court should have allowed jurors to hear the case and decide whether the ramming was reasonable, Stevens said. “A high-speed chase in a desert in Nevada is, after all, quite different from one that travels through the heart of Las Vegas,” he said.

david.savage@latimes.com


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