James J. Kilpatrick

First the good news: The Supreme Court will hear argument early next year in the sad case of a 19-year-old who tried to outrun some Georgia cops and wound up a paraplegic.

Put another way, it's the sad case of a police officer who tried his best to protect the motoring public and wound up as the losing defendant in a federal lawsuit.

The case at hand is the appeal of Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott from a remarkably bad opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The facts of the case were not seriously in dispute: On a night in March 2001, Scott joined other officers in a high-speed pursuit of young Victor Harris. What should have been a simple, uncomplicated arrest for speeding turned into a nine-mile chase at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour.

In an effort to abort the chase before Harris killed someone, Deputy Scott attempted what is known to police as a "precision intervention maneuver." At a point on Route 74 in Fayette County, when the chase had slowed and no traffic was in sight, Scott lightly bumped the fleeing vehicle. Harris lost control, went over an embankment and suffered serious injuries -- injuries he might have avoided simply by pulling over at an officer's lawful command.

Harris brought suit in federal court against Scott and the county, charging that the officer had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Judge Rosemary Barkett, writing four years later from the quiet detachment of her chambers, minimized the whole incident. Prior to the chase, she noted, Harris posed no imminent threat to anyone. "There were alternatives for a later arrest."

Judge Barkett's opinion, joined by Judges Stanley F. Birch and Emmett Cox, struck me as bad law and worse justice. One has to feel sorry for a 19-year-old paraplegic, but he brought his misery on himself. We'll see in the spring if the Supreme Court sides with a good cop or with a reckless boy.

So much for the good news from the high court. The bad news is that two weeks ago the justices let themselves become embroiled once more in the muddy morass of abortion law. Justice Clarence Thomas was out sick, but the other eight listened patiently to two hours of oral argument, first in Gonzales v. Carhart and then in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation. In these companion cases, Solicitor General Paul D. Clement sought dutifully to defend the indefensible. Thus he urged the court to uphold the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

James J. Kilpatrick

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

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