High-Speed Chases: Justified or Just High-Risk?

Feb. 26, 2007 — -- High-speed chases — they often make for intense video showing speeding cars and spectacular crashes. But what if those crashes do more than just bang up a car or knock down some street signs? Government statistics show that on average, more than 350 people die annually because of these chases. Now, for the first time in 20 years, the Supreme Court is considering placing boundaries on police intervention during these chases.

Scott v. Harris, the case argued before the Supreme Court today, stems from a 2001 chase in Georgia. Fayette County Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott joined other law enforcement officers chasing Victor Harris as he barreled down wet roads at high speed, bobbing and weaving in attempts to evade the police. Scott had already tried once to stop Harris' black Cadillac at a highway on-ramp, but Harris hit the deputy's vehicle and kept driving. Scott saw a second opportunity to intervene and volunteered to ram his already-damaged cruiser into Harris' by using a maneuver called a precision intervention technique, or PIT, which calls for an officer to bump a car at an angle to spin it to a halt. Scott radioed his supervisor, "Fifty-six, sixty-six, permission to PIT him?" The reply came just seconds later. "Go ahead and take him out. Take him out!" Scott's move forced the suspect off the road and down an embankment. The crash left Harris -- 19 years old at the time -- paralyzed from the neck down.

Stunning Video Caught on Tape

The chase, which lasted for about 9 miles, was caught on video from a camera mounted on Scott's dashboard. It was that video that seemed to stun some of the justices as they grappled with how far police can go to try to stop a fleeing suspect before violating the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

Several justices, clearly moved by the video, seemed sympathetic to Scott's use of force.

"Anyone who has watched that tape has got to come to that conclusion looking at the road and the way that this car was swerving and the cars coming in the opposite direction," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. "This was a situation fraught with danger."

Justice Antonin Scalia called the video "frightening" and added, "He created the scariest chase I ever saw since 'The French Connection.'"

Merely 'Unsafe'?

But in his argument, Harris' lawyer, Craig Jones, said his client's driving was merely "unsafe." But the Justices questioned that characterization. "We are talking about 90 miles an hour on a two-lane highway, swerving past cars in the incoming traffic" Chief Justice John Roberts shot back, "That's a little bit more than unsafe."

Jones further attempted to mitigate Harris' reckless driving, noting he was even careful enough to use his turning signal. Justice Anthony Kennedy showed skepticism toward Jones' argument. "He used the turning signal," Kennedy said. "That's like the strangler who observes the no smoking sign."

Use of Force

Harris, who was driving with a suspended license, said after the crash that he was too scared to stop. On Harris' behalf, Jones told the justices that Scott's maneuver was too extreme and that there were alternatives the deputy could have used. "He [Scott] could have continued the pursuit and simply decided not to mow him off the road," he said. Jones said that "unsafe flight" was not enough to justify the use of force. "You've got to have someone who is behaving violently, who is menacing people, trying to ram people." Lower courts have agreed with Jones' argument.

Split-Second Decisions

The Law enforcement community is concerned that the nation's highest court might try to limit officers' ability to make split-second decisions while in the pursuit of suspects.

Scott's legal team also argued that even if the high court finds that Scott's conduct violated the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment, Scott shouldn't be prosecuted because, they say, he acted reasonably in believing that his conduct was lawful. In briefs submitted to the court, the lawyers dispute Harris' suit, stating, "A reasonable police officer could not ignore the ongoing danger and wait until an injury or death occurred."

Dennis Powell and Jan Crawford Greenburg contributed to this report.