WASHINGTON -- Police may use tactics that put fleeing suspects at risk of death to end high-speed car chases, the Supreme Court said Monday in ruling against a Georgia teenager who was paralyzed after his car was run off the road.
In a case that turned in part on a video of the chase in suburban Atlanta, the court said it is reasonable for law enforcement officers to try to stop a fleeing motorist to prevent harm to bystanders or other drivers.
"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," Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion.
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. The nighttime chase reached speeds of up to 90 miles an hour.
Victor Harris, the 19-year-old driver of the Cadillac, lost control and his car ended up at the bottom of an embankment. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic.
Many large police forces have strict rules for when officers can begin high-speed pursuit, limiting chases to instances where there has been a felony crime committed, a misdemeanor crime involving a weapon, or suspected drunken drivers who are an obvious road hazard.
Harris was wanted only for speeding.
Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on the Fourth Amendment, said he did not think that police would relax those policies. "The clear trend of police departments in major urban areas has been to limit police chases in general," Dressler said. "There have been so many injuries and deaths as a result of police chases and such great risk of harm to innocent bystanders."
More than 350 people died each year on average from 1994 to 2004 because of police chases, a group of Georgia police chiefs said in court papers in this case.
Yet officers now have less to fear from the tragic results of a car chase because of Monday's ruling, Dressler said. "This ruling may result in even faster chases and therefore perhaps increase the risk of harm not only to the speeder, but also innocent bystanders."
Innocent parties hurt in such incidents always have had a hard time winning lawsuits against police and Monday's decision will make their claims harder to prove, Dressler said
Harris sued Scott after the crash, claiming the deputy's decision to ram the Cadillac violated Harris' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Lower federal courts ruled the lawsuit could proceed, but the Supreme Court said Monday that the officer could not be sued for his actions. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.