Police have discretion to use ramming tactics to end high-speed chases without facing future lawsuits filed by the fleeing suspects.
In an important ruling defining Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in the context of high-speed police chases, the US Supreme Court on Monday gave a green light to law enforcement to use violent force to stop fleeing suspects who pose a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others.
"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," writes Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion.
The 8-to-1 decision stems from a March 2001 high-speed police chase in Coweta County, Ga., that ended with the 19-year-old suspect becoming a quadriplegic after a deputy sheriff forced the teen's car off the road where it overturned in a wreck.
The driver, Victor Harris, later sued Deputy Timothy Scott for using excessive force to end the high-speed pursuit.
Lawyers for Deputy Scott argued that the suit should be dismissed because he was covered by qualified immunity.
Mr. Harris's lawyers countered that the deputy could be sued because his decision to ram Harris's car was unreasonable in light of clearly established Fourth Amendment protections.
To decide the case, the majority justices relied in part on a police videotape of the chase. Justice Scalia writes that the videotape displayed a different version of the facts than those portrayed by the appeals court panel that upheld the Harris lawsuit against the deputy.
Scalia said the appeals court offered a more benign description of Harris's conduct during the chase. He said the appeals court made it sound like Harris was attempting to pass a driving test rather than fleeing from police.
"The videotape tells quite a different story," Scalia writes. "Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort."
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a lone dissent. He agreed with the appeals court's characterization of Harris's driving during the chase and said it was not clear that the late-night pursuit in rural Georgia threatened the life of any innocent bystander.
The deputy sheriffs could have used less dangerous tactics, including simply calling off the chase once they'd secured the driver's license number for later arrest, he said.
Stevens said that rather than creating a nationwide rule on the issue, such questions should be left to a jury to decide whether the officer acted reasonably or not.
The decision in Scott v. Harris is important because it offers law-enforcement officials across the country guidance in how to properly respond in high-speed chases. In some cases it could encourage more aggressive efforts to take violent action to end pursuits that are deemed particularly dangerous to bystanders.
Many police departments have enacted pursuit policies that discourage the use of violent means to end a chase.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 350 individuals are killed each year in the US in crashes related to high-speed pursuits by police. The statistics show that nearly 230 of the deaths are fleeing suspects, while five police officers are killed each year in such chases. The remaining fatalities are bystanders.
The police pursuit of Harris began at 10:42 p.m. when a deputy sheriff clocked Harris's Cadillac as traveling 73 miles per hour in a 55 m.p.h. zone. The officer flashed his blue emergency lights, but Harris just kept going.
The deputy took chase and was soon joined in the pursuit by Deputy Scott. Harris drove his Cadillac at speeds reaching at least 90 m.p.h. on a windy, two-lane country road. He passed other cars, ignoring the double yellow, no-passing lines in the road, and he ran two red lights. At one point police tried to block Harris in a shopping center parking lot, but after colliding with one of the police cars, Harris was able to return to the highway and again reach speeds of 90 m.p.h. or more.
Although he was not the initial officer in the chase, Deputy Scott requested permission from his supervisor to attempt a maneuver in which he would tap Harris's Cadillac from behind and cause the car to fishtail and come to a halt. The tactic is called a "precision intervention technique." Scott was given approval. But Harris was going too fast to permit the tactic.
Instead, Scott rammed the Cadillac. Harris lost control of his car, it swerved off the highway, and rolled down an embankment. Harris, who was not wearing his seat belt, was paralyzed by injuries suffered during the crash.
Harris filed suit against Scott, charging that he violated the motorist's rights under the Fourth Amendment when he rammed the Cadillac and caused the wreck.
Specifically at issue in the case was whether Scott acted reasonably when he rammed the Cadillac to end the chase.
The answer to that question requires some balancing, the high court said.
"It is clear from the videotape that respondent posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase," writes Scalia.
"It is equally clear that Scott's actions posed a high likelihood of serious injury or death to [Harris]," Scalia adds.
The court considered both the number of lives placed at risk and the relative culpability of those involved in the chase.
"It was [Harris], after all, who intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight that ultimately produced the choice between two evils that Scott confronted."
"Multiple police cars, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, had been chasing [Harris] for nearly 10 miles, but he ignored their warning to stop," Scalia writes. "By contrast, those who might have been harmed had Scott not taken the action he did were entirely innocent."
The justice added: "We have little difficulty in concluding it was reasonable for Scott to take the action that he did."