A teen speeds. Police ram car. Who's at fault?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Victor Harris zoomed at 80 to 90 miles per hour in his Cadillac covering nearly nine miles in six minutes with a deputy sheriff hot on his tail. But when the chase ended in a violent crash that left the 19-year-old driver a quadriplegic, the roles reversed.

Now it is the deputy sheriff being pursued – by lawyers who say the officer violated the teen driver's constitutional rights when he forced the speeding Cadillac off the road.

Tuesday, Mr. Harris's case arrives at the US Supreme Court where the justices must decide whether drivers who speed and disobey police commands to pull over nonetheless are constitutionally protected against having their cars rammed by law-enforcement officials in high-speed chases. The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from using unreasonable tactics during arrests.

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A ruling in the case could set national policy for the measures police can use in high-speed chases.

More than 350 individuals are killed each year in the US in crashes related to high-speed pursuits by law enforcement, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The statistics show that in most instances – nearly 230 times per year – it is the fleeing suspect who dies. In contrast, roughly five police officers are killed each year in high-speed chases. The rest of the fatalities are bystanders, according to the NHTSA.

At issue in the Harris case is whether Coweta County (Ga.) Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott acted reasonably when he tried to bring Harris's car to a stop by ramming it during the March 2001 pursuit.

If he acted reasonably the deputy is entitled to qualified immunity and Harris's lawsuit must be dismissed. In contrast, if he used excessive force in a way that was clearly established to be unconstitutional at the time of the chase, the deputy loses his immunity and can be sued.

Harris's lawyers say the deputy used excessive and deadly force against a fleeing traffic offender who posed no immediate threat to others. Craig Jones of Atlanta admits that his client was speeding and that the teen panicked and sped away. But he denies that Harris ever did anything to threaten the police or other motorists.

"The law requires that there must be some violent resistance to being arrested as opposed to merely running away," Mr. Jones says. He says police are not permitted to shoot an unarmed fleeing suspect in the back, and likewise they are not allowed to use the kind of high-speed pursuit tactics that might kill or paralyze a driver because of a mere traffic violation.

Deputy Scott's lawyers view the case from a different perspective. They say Harris posed an escalating danger to the public through his foot-to-the-floor driving and that the deputy acted reasonably to defuse the danger posed by Harris.

"He was driving at speeds averaging 90 miles per hour on two-lane roads with cars in both directions. If there was a car in his way he would drive on the wrong side of the road," says Scott's lawyer, Philip Savrin of Atlanta. "This had all the earmarks of ending in tragedy."

Ruling: a boon to chasers or chased?

Both sides warn of grave consequences if the justices rule for their opponent. A ruling against the deputy might be a green light for fleeing motorists to try even harder to elude police, knowing that deputies can only pursue with flashing lights and blaring sirens. A ruling against the motorist might encourage police officers to use increasingly dangerous tactics to end chases.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, US Solicitor General Paul Clement says Scott did not violate Harris's Fourth Amendment rights. The level of force used was proportionate to the threat of Harris's dangerous and reckless driving, Mr. Clement writes. "In light of the risk of serious injury or death that such conduct posed to the pursuing officers, other motorists, or pedestrians, [Scott] reasonably decided to try to bring [Harris's] vehicle to a safe stop by bumping it from behind."

The courts must analyze the situation from the perspective of a reasonable police officer faced with a confused and unfolding situation, rather than with perfect 20/20 hindsight, the solicitor general says.

The incident began at 10:42 p.m. on March 29, 2001. A Coweta County sheriff's deputy clocked Harris's Cadillac traveling 73 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone. The officer flashed his emergency lights, but Harris just kept going.

The deputy took chase and was soon joined by Scott. Both officers watched as Harris crossed the solid yellow line on a two-lane country highway to pass other cars. Twice he ran red lights. And at one point the Cadillac nearly collided with a police cruiser as the deputy tried unsuccessfully to trap Harris in a parking lot.

A radioed OK, a spin, then a crash

Finally, Scott radioed a supervisor and asked for authorization to attempt a maneuver to cause the fleeing Cadillac to spin out of control.

"Go ahead and take him out," the supervisor replied.

When Scott rammed Harris's rear bumper, the Cadillac spun out, flipped, and rolled down an embankment.

Jones says Harris tried to outrun the deputies because he was driving with a suspended license and didn't want to go to jail. As the chase continued, Jones says, Harris accepted the idea of going to jail but he wanted the arrest to take place at his home so his car wouldn't be impounded.

He never made it.

"He was a 19-year-old kid who was not thinking clearly," Jones says.

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