May 1, 2007 in Nation/World

High court backs deadly force in chases

David G. Savage Los Angeles Times
 

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may use deadly force to stop a speeding motorist who ignores warnings and poses a danger to the public.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices threw out a lawsuit brought by a Georgia teenager who had sped away from police and led them on a high-speed chase down narrow, two-lane roads. The youth was paralyzed after a police cruiser rammed the back of his car and sent it careening off the road.

In a first for the court, the justices said they decided the case based on watching a police videotape of the incident.

Earlier, a federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals in Atlanta had said a jury should hear the Georgia teenager’s case and decide whether the deputy’s decision to ram the fleeing car amounted to an “unreasonable seizure.” The Fourth Amendment forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

But after studying the tape, the justices concluded “no reasonable jury” could rule against the deputy.

“What we see on the video … closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Victor Harris, the 19-year-old suspect, was speeding in a black Cadillac “in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast,” he said.

A ruling against the police could have forced law enforcement departments around the country to limit involvement in car chases.

At issue Monday was whether police could use force to stop a fleeing car. In the past, the court had said the police may not shoot to kill an unarmed fleeing suspect who poses no immediate danger. This is known as the “deadly force” rule.

Lawyers for the Georgia teenager cited the rule against deadly force when they sued deputy Timothy Scott for “intentionally ramming” Harris’ car and sending him off the road.

Harris’ lawyers argued the police created greater danger by chasing the suspect at a high speed rather than letting him get away.

The court disagreed.

“We are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people’s lives at risk,” Scalia said in Scott v. Harris.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed in full.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer said they agreed that Scott acted reasonably, but they disagreed with the broad rule Scalia announced.

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