MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Today, the Supreme Court ruled that police chasing a speeding motorist may use maneuvers that put the fleeing driver at risk of serious injury or death. By an 8-1 vote, the court declared that a driver who refused to stop for police could not sue after a sheriff's deputy rammed his car and knocked it off the road. The driver was left a quadriplegic. The incident was captured on police surveillance cameras from start to finish.
NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
(Soundbite of police sirens)
NINA TOTENBERG: Late on a March night in 2001, 19-year-old Victor Harris was speeding down a four-lane highway in suburban Atlanta at 73 miles an hour in a 55 mile-an-hour zone. A sheriff's deputy flashed his blue lights to tell 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 miles an hour.
At one point, Harris was nearly trapped when he pulled into an empty shopping center, but he scooted away, clipping the car of Deputy Timothy Scott.
(Soundbite of car ramming another car)
TOTENBERG: Deputy Scott then took over the lead and got permission to execute a maneuver to stop Harris' car.
Deputy TIMOTHY SCOTT (Policeman, Georgia): (Unintelligible).
TOTENBERG: The deputy then rammed the bumper of Harris' car, sending him over an embankment.
Deputy SCOTT: Driver can you hear me? Driver?
TOTENBERG: Harris sustained serious injuries and was left a quadriplegic. He sued police, claiming they've used excessive force. Two lower courts refused to dismiss the case outright adhering to the usual rule that disputes about facts must be resolved by a jury.
But today, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit because the court said the unchallenged police video of the chase shows the motorist's version was, quote, "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.
In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that police did use excessive force when they shot an unarmed burglary suspect in the head to prevent his escape. But that said, Justice Scalia was very different from the situation here. Bumping a car is not like shooting a gun to hit a person nor is the threat posed by an unarmed suspect fleeing on foot even remotely comparable to the extreme danger to human life posed by the recklessly speeding driver in this case.
Whether or not the deputy's action amounted to deadly force, all that matters is that the actions were reasonable. After all, said Justice Scalia, police had to weigh possible harm to many versus possible harm to a single driver. Not to mention the fact that the driver had ignored warnings to stop thus forcing police to make a choice.
The court's lone dissenting justice, John Paul Stevens, was not the least cowed at being alone. Indeed, he issued a rare oral defense from the bench questioning the conclusions his colleagues drew from the video.
Far from resembling a high-speed Hollywood chase, he said, the video can just as easily be interpreted the way that four lower court judges did to show a driver who is speeding but not driving aggressively.
Indeed, the driver who signals and waits for oncoming cars to pass before advancing on a two-lane road without a single pedestrian — and where most drivers, alerted by sirens, had already pulled over to the side of the road.
If groups of judges can disagree so vehemently about the circumstances here, then surely, said Justice Stevens, there was enough dispute about the facts to justify letting a jury decide.
What would have happened if the police have abandoned the chase, asks Stevens, they would have arrested the motorist later since they have a tag number and address. And Stevens pointed to the rules in placing countless police departments, including in Georgia, rules that tell 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.
You don't have to accept either the majority or the defense's interpretation of the video in this case, just go to our Web site, npr.org, and see it for yourself.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.