Court Watch - POSTED: 2007/02/25 18:05
The Supreme Court hears arguments this week in a case that will test the limits of what officers can do to stop speeding drivers in high-speed chases.
At issue before the court is whether a Georgia police officer went too far when he rammed his vehicle into a car driven by a fleeing 19-year-old -- a maneuver that left the motorist paralyzed.
Law enforcement officers around the country are anxiously watching the case, concerned that a ruling for the quadriplegic driver would put them in legal jeopardy for split-second decisions at crime scenes.
Meanwhile, civil liberties advocates and critics of police chases are concerned that a ruling for the officer in the case would give law enforcement the green light to use more aggressive tactics on the roads.
Law enforcement agencies should "authorize high-speed pursuits only when necessary," said Karen Blum, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, who filed a brief in the case for the National Police Accountability Project. "The tactics employed by (the officer in this case) present serious issues of police accountability and raise questions about police tactics."
The chase occurred in 2001 in Coweta County, Ga., a community about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta. Victor Harris, 19 at the time, was clocked driving 73 mph in a 55-mph zone. A county sheriff flashed his lights and turned on his siren, but Harris hit the gas and sped away. Deputy Timothy Scott joined the pursuit, which lasted for six minutes and covered almost 9 miles.
A trial court found that Harris drove between 70 and 90 mph, ran through two red lights, and bumped Scott's vehicle once. Nevertheless, Harris still used his turn indicators when passing other cars on the largely vacant roads.
Scott radioed a supervisor and got permission to use a "precision intervention technique" -- a maneuver for hitting another car that causes it to spin and then stop. But the deputy ultimately abandoned the technique because he and Harris were driving too fast on a wet, two-lane highway.
Instead, Scott hit Harris' car with his push bumper -- a move that caused the vehicle to careen down an embankment. Harris, who was not wearing a seat belt, was paralyzed from the neck down.
Harris filed a lawsuit against Scott, alleging violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against unreasonable seizures and excessive force.
A federal district court in Georgia ruled that the deputy could be held liable in civil court for using deadly force without having probable cause to believe the teenager had committed a serious crime or posed a threat to others. In December 2005, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
Scott appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which hears oral arguments in the case on Monday.
The deputy was acting "reasonably," argued his attorney, Philip Savrin, because a "fleeing car can be a deadly weapon" and Scott "believed that his actions avoided a greater risk of serious injury or death."
Savrin added: "Scott personally observed Harris driving recklessly and dangerously at extremely high speeds, through red lights and on the wrong side of the road. Scott properly recognized that Harris was a continuing danger to the public, and he acted reasonably to defuse the danger."
The Supreme Court's ruling in the case is expected to set new benchmarks for when and how law enforcement officers can chase suspects and use their vehicles to stop them.
The issue is murky because the previous two rulings on the use of deadly force were roughly two decades ago -- and those did not deal with car chases.
For instance, in 1985, the Supreme Court said deadly force can be used when a suspect threatens an officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe the suspect has committed a crime causing serious physical harm.
In 1989, the high court said judges deciding whether the use of deadly force is reasonable must weigh the underlying crime involved, the immediate threat a suspect poses and whether the suspect is actively evading arrest.
Harris' attorney, Craig Jones, argued that Harris' only offense at the beginning of the police chase was speeding -- a relatively minor crime that did not warrant such a risky pursuit.
Jones warned that a ruling against his client would give law enforcement officers carte blanche to recklessly and "knowingly apply deadly force in circumstances when no life is in immediate danger in order to seize a fleeing traffic offender."