WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday gave police officers protection from lawsuits that result from high-speed car chases, ruling against a Georgia teenager who was paralyzed after his car was run off the road.
In a case that turned on a video of the chase in suburban Atlanta, Justice Antonin Scalia said law enforcement officers do not have to call off pursuit of a fleeing motorist when they reasonably expect that other people could be hurt.
Rather, officers can take measures to stop the car without putting themselves at risk of civil rights lawsuits.
"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," Scalia said.
The court sided 8-1 with former Coweta County sheriff's deputy Timothy Scott, who rammed a fleeing black Cadillac on a two-lane, rain-slicked road in March 2001.
Victor Harris, the 19-year-old driver of the Cadillac, lost control and his car ended up at the bottom of an embankment. The nighttime chase took place at roughly 90 miles an hour.
Harris, paralyzed, sued Scott.
Lower federal courts ruled the lawsuit could proceed, but the Supreme Court said Monday that it could not. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.
In an unusual move, the court posted the dramatic video on its Web site.
Scalia described a "Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury."
Stevens, however, said that a district court judge and three appellate judges who watched the same video concluded that issue should be decided after a trial, not by a judge in a pretrial ruling.
He said that was preferable to the case "being decided by a group of elderly appellate judges," a reference to himself and his colleagues on the court. At 87, Stevens is the oldest justice.
Scalia said people could watch the tape and decide for themselves. "We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself," he said in a footnote that accompanied the ruling.
The case is Scott v. Harris, 05-1631.