James J. Kilpatrick

Well, Harris didn't pull over, the chase ended tragically, and he sued under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, charging that Scott had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. Deputy Scott and the county responded by asking for summary judgment on their claim of qualified immunity. They lost in the District Court and lost again last December before a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit.

Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett ruled against him all the way. The ramming of Harris' car clearly amounted to the use of "deadly force." Except in limited circumstances, police officers are forbidden to use such force. No such circumstances were present here. The high-speed chase presented little, if any, actual threat to pedestrians or other motorists. Harris remained in control of his vehicle. Indeed, he slowed for intersections "and typically used his indicator for turns." He could have been arrested later.

Judge Barkett brushed aside Scott's argument that by continuing to flee, a criminal suspect absolves a pursuing officer of liability. On that night in March 2001, the law was clear and Scott should have known it: Officers had been on notice since 1985 that ramming a vehicle under these circumstances amounts to deadly force -- and even against suspected felons, an officer may employ deadly force only under limited circumstances. Here, Scott had no reason to believe that the speeding motorist either posed an immediate threat of violence to others or possessed a deadly weapon.

Will the Supreme Court agree to hear Deputy Sheriff Scott's appeal? Probably not, for the high court rarely takes cases until they have reached a point of finality. This one has yet a way to go. My sympathies are with the irresponsible driver, crippled by his own lawless behavior, but my heart goes out to the cop. A policeman's lot is not a happy one.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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