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Originally published May 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 1, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Supreme Court uses police video to uphold deadly force in chases

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...

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. We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, cross the double yellow line and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit," Scalia said.

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

Monday's decision was the second in a decade that largely shielded police from being sued in federal court for pursuing a speeding car.

In 1998, the court said the police cannot be sued for being reckless during a high-speed chase in an urban area. Officers often are "forced to make split-second judgments," the court said then, and they should not be liable for a chase that appeared unwise in retrospect.

At issue 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 Harris cited the rule against deadly force when they sued Deputy Timothy Scott for "intentionally ramming" Harris' car and sending him off the road.

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Before the ramming, a supervisor radioed Scott and said: "Go ahead. Take him out."

Harris was clocked at 73 mph in a 55-mph zone when an officer flashed his blue lights. Rather than pulling over, Harris sped up and led the police on a chase for 9 miles at speeds of up to 90 mph.

Lawyers for Harris 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.

"Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: 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," he said.

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

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

High-speed police chases have been the subject of dispute in recent years because innocent motorists and pedestrians sometimes are injured or killed. Most police departments have adopted rules that limit when and under what circumstances officers may initiate a pursuit.

The Supreme Court has said it is not willing to have judges and juries decide whether the police had acted reasonably.

In a solo dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said he worried the court had gone too far and, in effect, given a green light to reckless, high-speed chases that will endanger the public.

Had the police broken off the chase in this case, they could easily have arrested the driver at his home since they had his license number, he said.

Since the context counts, the court should have allowed jurors to hear the case and to decide whether the ramming was reasonable, Stevens said.

Among other cases Monday:

Detainees: The court refused to hear the case of two Guantánamo Bay prisoners who want to challenge the legality of military commissions.

Death penalty: The justices agreed to decide whether the president can order state courts to obey an international court ruling in the case of Jose Medellin, a Mexican national who is on death row in Texas for killing two teenage girls.

Power plants: The court turned down an appeal from the government and utility industry that favored allowing extensive changes to older coal-fired power plants without having to install pollution controls.

Visitation: The court declined to get involved in a dispute between two former lesbian lovers over visitation rights involving a 4-year-old.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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