WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a police officer cannot be held liable for ramming a fleeing car during a high-speed chase, forcing the vehicle off the road and resulting in severe injury or even death for the driver.
By an 8-1 vote, the high court ruled the officer’s conduct reasonable because the car chase initiated by the suspect posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others.
Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority that an officer’s attempt to end a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatened the lives of innocent bystanders did not violate the Constitution, even if it placed the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.
He said a police video of the incident “resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort.”
The Supreme Court took the unusual step of putting the video on its Web site, along with the ruling in the case involving a sheriff's deputy from Coweta County in Georgia. (here).
Scalia said the video contradicted the suspect’s version of events that pedestrians or other motorists faced little or no threat during the chase.
The video showed the car “racing down narrow, two-lane roads in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast,” Scalia said. “We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself.”
The ruling occurred at a time of increased national debate about high-speech police chases, which have resulted in more than 350 deaths annually in recent years.
The incident began at 10:45 p.m. on March 29, 2001, when a sheriff’s deputy clocked Victor Harris driving 73 mph (117 kph) in a 55 mph (88 mph) zone.
When the officer gave chase, Harris speeded up, going at least 90 mph (144 kph) at times, running two red lights and passing other cars while weaving through traffic on the two-lane road.
A second officer, Timothy Scott, rammed the rear of the speeding Cadillac, causing Harris to lose control of the car and go down an embankment. Harris, who was 19 at the time, was paralyzed by injuries he suffered in the crash.
The chase covered about nine miles and lasted six minutes.
The U.S. Justice Department supported Scott and said his use of force was “reasonable” and did not violate any clearly established right. The American Civil Liberties Union supported Harris and said the case should be allowed to proceed to trial.
Harris sued Scott for violating his constitutional rights by using excessive force during the chase. A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court ruled that Scott could be held liable.
The high court overturned the lower court’s decision.
Scalia said Harris intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in reckless, high-speed flight.
He rejected the argument by lawyers for Harris that safety could have been assured if the police had simply ceased their pursuit.
Of the nine Supreme Court members, only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented. He said less drastic measures, like using a device to flatten Harris’ tires slowly, could have avoided “such a tragic result” that made Harris a quadriplegic.