Supreme Court sides with police in chase case

By Robert Barnes, Staff Writer
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court today handed an important victory to police officers who are involved in high-speed chases, and took the unusual step of posting a videotape of the chase on its Web site to show that the now-paralyzed civilian driver was to blame.

The court ruled 8-1 that Georgia deputy sheriff Timothy Scott could not be sued for the accident that left then 19-year-old Victor Harris a quadriplegic. The high-speed chase down dark highways in 2001 -- which ended when Scott rammed Harris' Cadillac from behind and sent him down an embankment -- was captured on videotape by a camera in one of the pursuing police vehicles.

It provided dramatic evidence for the justices, who normally decide issues of law and leave fact-finding for juries and lower courts.

But it was clear during oral arguments and reinforced by today's ruling that the justices were shocked by what they had seen.

"Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia was incredulous that the lower courts had said Harris's case against Scott could proceed.

But Justice John Paul Stevens said from the bench that it was preferrable to let a jury see the tape and decide the case, rather than "elderly appellate judges." Stevens is the oldest member of the court at 87.

He said the court had "usurped the jury's factfinding function."

The case comes amid a backdrop of sensational high-speed police chases that have become a staple of cable television shows, as well as increasing debate about whether it is more dangerous for law enforcement officers to chase and capture wrongdoers than to let them go and hope to arrest them later.

In this case, both a lower court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in favor of Harris. The 11th Circuit said that Scott's actions constituted deadly force and that it was unreasonable because the officer had no reason to think Harris had done anything more than violate traffic laws. The police gave chase because they clocked him going 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.

In their opinions, Scalia and Stevens got into a battle of footnotes, which Scalia said the public could decide.

"Justice Stevens suggest that our reaction to the videotape is somehow idiosyncratic, and seems to believe we are misrepresenting its contents," Scalia wrote. "We are happy to allow the videotape for itself."

There follows a highly unusual cite for a court that rarely releases audiotapes of its oral arguments and remains steadfastly opposed to cameras in its courtroom.

Copyright The Washington Post 2007

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