WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Monday gave a green light to police who end high-speed chases by ramming the suspect's car, rejecting the claims made by a teenager who was left paralyzed after racing away from the law.
In an 8-1 ruling, the court agreed that sheriff's deputies hadn't violated Victor Harris' constitutional rights by ramming his car to terminate a late-night chase through rural Georgia. The decision protects law enforcement officials nationwide as they craft new policies to deal with high-speed pursuits.
``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 in danger," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. "Every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times, and runs a few red lights."
Twenty-eight states—including Texas, California, South Carolina and Idaho—had urged the court to support police in the closely watched case. In a jurisprudential first that takes a page from the TV show "COPS," the court's official Web site links to the videotape of the nine-minute car chase.
Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.
"(Harris') refusal to stop and subsequent flight was a serious offense that merited severe punishment," Stevens wrote. "It was not, however, a capital offense, or even an offense that justified the use of deadly force rather than an abandonment of the chase."
With injuries and deaths occurring weekly, police agencies have been examining their chase policies. Nationwide, 357 people were killed in police chases in 2005, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records.
California and Texas typically lead the nation in injuries and deaths during police chases, with 39 killed in Texas and 38 in California in 2005. Sixteen were killed in North Carolina and 15 in Florida that year.
California Highway Patrol officers, like their counterparts in other states, say they balance public safety with making arrests.
"The CHP has well-developed pursuit policies, which have been used as a nationwide model for law enforcement agencies," spokeswoman Jaimie Coffee said.
The chase that crippled Harris occurred March 29, 2001, when he was 19. A Coweta County deputy sheriff clocked Harris going 73 mph in a 55-mph zone. The deputy pursued him at speeds reaching 90 mph.
A Fayette County deputy received permission to attempt a daring maneuver that sends the fleeing car into a spin. Untrained in the precision technique, the deputy instead bluntly rammed Harris' car, sending it down an embankment.
Harris wasn't wearing a seat belt, and the crash rendered him a quadriplegic.
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Florida, Alabama and Georgia, characterized the intentional collision as deadly force. The appellate panel further agreed that this was unwarranted simply to catch a speeder, violating the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
"Ramming Harris's vehicle ... would violate Harris's right to be free from excessive force during a seizure," the appellate panel ruled.
The Supreme Court had ruled in a 1985 case that police could use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect only if they had reason to think that he posed a significant threat.
In an unusual twist, Scalia cited in detail the police videotape of the Georgia chase, evidence that appellate judges hadn't explicitly discussed. Stevens complained that it was "unprecedented" for the Supreme Court to practice this kind of fact-finding, which is usually the responsibility of juries, but Scalia argued that the videotape was compelling.
"What we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury," Scalia wrote.
The videotape is available at: