Justices Weigh Police Chase Video
Tape Is at Heart of '01 Crash That Left Fleeing Suspect Paralyzed
By Robert Barnes
The Supreme Court relies on precedents and case law, dry recitations of fact and the sometimes bloodless decisions of the courts below it. But in a case involving a now-paralyzed man who instigated a high-speed police chase, most of the justices, as a sportscaster might say, went to the videotape.
And the reviews rolled in.
"He created the scariest chase I ever saw since 'The French Connection,' " Justice Antonin Scalia said during yesterday's hour-long oral arguments.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "Anyone who has watched that tape has got to come to [the] conclusion, looking at the road and the way that this car was swerving, and the cars coming in the opposite direction . . . this was a situation fraught with danger."
Videotape, in this case taken from cameras inside the police cars, is an unusual piece of the record for Supreme Court justices to weigh, but it is at the heart of Scott v. Harris (05-1631). The tape was not played yesterday, but it appeared that a majority of the justices had watched it.
The case involves Coweta County Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott's decision in 2001 to end a wild, high-speed chase through dark and wet Georgia highways by finally ramming the back of Victor Harris's Cadillac, sending him down an embankment and flipping his car. Harris, then 19, was left a quadriplegic and has sued, claiming it a violation of his constitutional rights for Scott to take such drastic action.
Scott has countered that his maneuver was reasonable to save others who were endangered by Harris's unlawful driving and that, even if not, he should be granted immunity because it was not clearly established law that his action would violate Harris's Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable seizure.
The case comes amid a backdrop of sensational high-speed police chases that have become a staple of cable television shows, as well as increasing debate about whether it is more dangerous for law enforcement officers to chase and capture wrongdoers than to let them go and hope to arrest them later.
In this case, both a lower court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit have ruled in favor of Harris. The 11th Circuit said that Scott's actions constituted deadly force, and that it was unreasonable because the officer had no reason to think Harris had done anything more than violate traffic laws. The police gave chase because they clocked him going 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.
"Mr. Harris was simply an unsafe driver," his attorney, Craig T. Jones of Atlanta, told the justices. Jones agreed that Harris should have stopped when officers attempted to pull him over, and that the chase, which lasted six minutes and covered nine miles, involved speeds of more than 90 mph.
But he pointed out that Harris, who Jones has said panicked when police gave chase to him, did not use his car to try to assault other drivers, and that at times he even used his turn signals. That fact did not elicit much sympathy.
"He used the turning signal," repeated Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "That's like the strangler who observes the no-smoking sign."
Still, Jones argued, Supreme Court precedent holds that police may not use deadly force to stop fleeing suspects unless the suspects threaten the officer with a weapon or there is reason to believe they have committed a serious crime of physical harm or are a threat to do so.
And he said the police pursuit of his client is what created the dangerous conditions.
After Harris had eluded Scott and other officers, Scott told a fellow officer to "let me have him, my car's already tore up." He asked a supervisor for permission to ram Harris's vehicle from the side, which could cause him to spin around and stop. "Go ahead and take him out," the supervisor replied.
But Scott decided he could not make that work, because of the speed at which they were traveling and the road conditions, so he rammed Harris from behind, which sent him careening off the road.
Deputy Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre, who represents the Bush administration's support for Scott, said the deputy sheriff's split-second decision was valid. "When a suspect disobeys a lawful command to stop, races off in a reckless attempt to elude the police, and demonstrates a disregard for his own life and the lives of others in his path, the police may use force, including deadly force, to bring the suspect's vehicle flight to a halt and protect the public safety," he said.
But Jones pointed out that the 11th Circuit had found otherwise, and that the justices' rules for hearing questions of immunity require them to accept the lower court's finding of facts.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said seeing the videotape himself makes that complicated. He said he had been back and forth on the case until he saw the tape. "Am I supposed to pretend I haven't seen that?"
"Well, I think you apply the law, Your Honor," Jones replied.
Breyer said later that he would look at the tape again, but was afraid that "I end up with Chico Marx's old question with respect to the Court of Appeals: Who do you believe -- me or your own eyes?"