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The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of police officers involved in high-speed car chases that may cause unintentional injury. In an 8-to-1 decision, justices ruled that officers are protected from lawsuits filed by someone who was injured while fleeing police.
The case stems from a night in March 2001 when Victor Harris, then 19, was speeding down a four-lane highway in suburban Atlanta at 73 mph in a 55 mph zone.
A sheriff's deputy flashed his lights to signal Harris to pull over. Instead, the driver sped away, turning onto a two-lane road and leading an ever-growing posse of police cars on a chase at speeds exceeding 85 mph.
At one point, Harris was nearly trapped after pulling into an empty shopping center, but he scooted away, clipping the car of Deputy Timothy Scott.
Scott then took the lead and got permission to execute a maneuver to stop Harris's car. Scott rammed the bumper of Harris's car, sending him over an embankment.
Harris sustained serious injuries and was left a quadriplegic. He sued police, claiming they had used excessive force. Two lower courts refused to dismiss the case, adhering to the usual rule that disputes about facts must be resolved by a jury.
But the Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit on the grounds that a police video of the chase, which had not been challenged, showed that Harris's version of events was "fiction so totally at odds with the record that no reasonable juror would have believed him."
Writing for an eight-justice majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that, far from being the arguably controlled driver that the lower courts depicted, "What we see on the video is a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk."
The court's lone dissenting justice, John Paul Stevens, was not the least cowed by his solo status. Indeed, he issued a rare oral dissent from the bench, questioning the conclusions his colleagues drew from the video.
Far from resembling a high-speed Hollywood chase, Stevens said, the video can just as easily be interpreted the way that four lower court judges saw it — a driver who is speeding but not driving aggressively.
The video, Stevens said, shows a driver who signals and waits for oncoming cars to pass before advancing on a two-lane road without any pedestrians — and where many drivers, alerted by sirens, had already pulled over to the side of the road when the speeding motorist whipped by.
If groups of judges can disagree so vehemently about the circumstances, then surely, Stevens said, there was enough dispute about the facts to justify letting a jury decide.
Stevens also pointed to rules adopted at countless police departments, including in Georgia, that urge police to abandon a chase when a violator's identity has been established to the point that later apprehension can be accomplished without danger to the public.