Unarmed, Non-dangerous, Driving 90 on the Wrong Side of the Road

Terry Jeffrey

2/28/2007 12:01:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

To understand what Timothy Scott did, you must first understand what Victor Harris did not do.

At about 10:45 on the night of March 29, 2001, Harris was driving his Cadillac at 73 miles per hour down a two-lane highway where the limit was 55. Coweta County, Ga., Deputy Sheriff Clinton Reynolds, waiting by the side of the road as backup for a drug sting unfolding nearby, flashed his blue lights at Harris to get him to slow down.

Harris did not.

Reynolds turned on his siren, pulled onto the highway and tried to get Harris to pull over.

Harris did not.

Instead, according to a brief that the U.S. solicitor general filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris sped up, driving "in excess of 100 miles per hour" in the direction of the neighborhoods and shopping districts of Peachtree City, Ga.

Reynolds told a dispatcher he was chasing the Cadillac. Deputy Timothy Scott -- who was also waiting as backup for the drug sting, and who was not told whether the fleeing Cadillac had anything to do with the sting -- took off to assist Reynolds.

With both deputies pursuing, Harris hurtled into Peachtree City, turned into the parking lot of a shopping center and drove past two parked squad cars with policemen inside. Scott raced around the periphery of the lot on city streets, hoping to block Harris at the exit.

Here there is a factual dispute: Did the Cadillac collide with the deputy's car, or did the deputy's car collide with the Cadillac? There is no dispute, however, about whether Harris stopped after the collision.

He did not.

Instead, he fled up another highway "reaching speeds of at least 90 miles per hour."

There is also no dispute about whether Harris should have refrained, as he was fleeing, from repeatedly crossing double-yellow lines and passing cars on the wrong side of the highway. He did not.

Nor is there a dispute about whether Harris stopped when he came to red lights. He did not.

Now, it could have been that I would be writing today that this chase ended when Harris drove his Cadillac head-on into a van full of high school kids.

He did not -- thank God. He killed no one that night.

You see, Deputy Scott made a decision. Realizing Harris posed a threat to innocent people, he secured approval from his supervisor to try to stop Harris with a "Precision Intervention Technique," which is designed to bump a fleeing vehicle at such an angle that it spins to stop. Because Harris was driving so fast, however, Scott could only manage to bump the Cadillac in the rear. He waited to do so where the road was flat and free of traffic.

The Cadillac careened off the pavement and rolled over.

Harris, of course, should have fastened his seat belt. Alas, he did not. He is now a paraplegic.

Even so, you might have thought Harris would end up in court, considering all the things he did not do. And he did. But he is not the one in trouble. Deputy Scott is.

Harris sued him. He argues Scott's action that night violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from "unreasonable" seizures. The case was argued in the Supreme Court on Monday.

If common sense governed in this case, there would be no case. Deputy Scott acted reasonably under the circumstances. But common sense has not governed in this case, federal judges have.

Over the years, federal judges have encrusted the common sense language of the Constitution with convoluted legalisms. The Fourth Amendment guarantee against "unreasonable" seizures is no exception.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, ruling against Scott, decided the relevant encrustation in this case was a Supreme Court precedent called Tennessee v. Garner. It examined an instance where a policeman shot a fleeing unarmed burglar as he climbed a fence. "A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him in the head," ruled the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the Supreme Court said: "Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force."

With telling irony, the 11th Circuit decided that Harris in his speeding car was "unarmed" and "non-dangerous," but that Scott unconstitutionally endangered him by turning his sheriff's car into an instrument of "deadly force."

It would be nice to believe the judges who decided this case in the lower courts put the legitimate interests of law-abiding citizens above the claimed rights of reckless lawbreaker.

They did not.