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Justices give police green light to tactics in high-speed chases

The Supreme Court, ruling 8-1, said risking the death of a fleeing suspect was reasonable.

WASHINGTON - Police may use tactics that put fleeing suspects at risk of death in order to end car chases, the Supreme Court said yesterday in ruling against a Georgia teenager who was paralyzed after his car was run off the road.

In a case that turned in part on a video of the chase in an Atlanta suburb, the court said it was reasonable for law-enforcement officers to try to stop a fleeing motorist to prevent harm to bystanders or other drivers.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his majority opinion in Scott v. Harris: "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 court sided 8-1 with former Coweta County sheriff's deputy Timothy Scott, who rammed a fleeing black Cadillac on a two-lane rain-slicked road in March 2001. The nighttime chase reached speeds of 90 m.p.h.

Victor Harris, 19, the driver of the Cadillac, lost control, and his car ended up at the bottom of an embankment. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic.

The court, in a nod to modern technology, for the first time posted the dramatic video on its Web site.

Many large police forces have strict rules for when officers may begin high-speed pursuit, limiting chases to instances in which there has been a felony crime committed, a misdemeanor crime involving a weapon, or suspected drunken drivers who are an obvious road hazard.

Harris was wanted only for speeding.

Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on the Fourth Amendment, said he did not think police would relax those policies.

"The clear trend of police departments in major urban areas has been to limit police chases in general," he said. "There have been so many injuries and deaths as a result of police chases and such great risk of harm to innocent bystanders."

More than 350 people died each year on average from 1994 to 2004 because of police chases, a group of Georgia police chiefs said in court papers in this case.

But Dressler said yesterday's ruling "may result in even faster chases and therefore perhaps increase the risk of harm not only to the speeder but also innocent bystanders."

Innocent parties hurt in such incidents have always had difficulty winning lawsuits against police, and yesterday's decision will make their claims harder to prove, Dressler said

Harris sued Scott after the crash, contending that the deputy's decision to ram the Cadillac violated Harris' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

Lower federal courts ruled that the lawsuit could proceed, but the Supreme Court ruled that the officer could not be sued for his actions. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

During oral arguments, justices repeatedly invoked the video to support how recklessly they believed Harris was driving.

Stevens, however, said that a District Court judge and three appellate judges who watched the same video had concluded otherwise. Those judges determined that the issue should be decided after a trial, not by a judge in a pretrial ruling.

Other Supreme Court Actions

The justices yesterday:

of two Guantanamo Bay prisoners seeking to challenge the legality of military commissions. Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Omar Khadr face commission trials - Hamdan for acting as a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and Khadr for throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Green Beret soldier.

- Inquirer wire services


Read the police-chase ruling via

See video of the chase via (requires Real Player)EndText