A policeman's lot, cont.

Posted: Oct 12, 2006 12:01 AM

For Victor Harris, his saddest words were surely these: "If only I had pulled over ..."

For Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott, perhaps they were, "If only I had let him go ..."

But young Harris was stupid and Deputy Scott was stubborn, and it's now a fair assumption that both of them look back on that night five years ago with a sense of terrible regret. The U.S. Supreme Court may hear the story that both of them must live with.

Deputy Scott was on routine patrol that Thursday night in Coweta County, Ga., about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. A little before 11 o'clock, he was drawn into the hot pursuit of a speeding driver. Instead of stopping at an officer's command, 19-year-old Victor Harris increased his speed and attempted to escape.

The chase lasted only six minutes. Harris reached speeds in excess of 100 mph on a two-lane road. He passed other vehicles by crossing over double-yellow lines. He raced through red traffic lights. He weaved recklessly through a shopping center in Peachtree City. With four police cars on his tail, their sirens screaming, Harris still refused to stop. Heedlessly, he raced through crowded intersections.

Finally the nine-mile chase neared a point on Route 74 where Deputy Scott felt an arrest could be safely risked. At a suddenly empty point on the highway, when the high rate of speed had briefly slowed, Scott tapped the rear bumper of the fleeing vehicle. Harris lost control. He careened across the road and crashed.

Harris is now a quadriplegic.

What's the law? Where do the equities lie? One's heart goes out to a young man whose life has been forever altered because he tried to dodge a ticket for speeding. Given the circumstances of this case, surely the best police practice would have been for Scott to record the license plate and suspend the chase. A check of motor vehicle records might have disclosed that Harris had no valid driver's license and no insurance. But so damned what!

On the other hand, my heart also leans toward a police officer doing his dangerous duty. It is one thing for an appellate judge to read the record of this case in the peace and quiet of her chambers. It is quite another to write that record at 90 mph on a rural road at night. One imagines his concern:

Why won't he stop? Is he going to kill someone? Dear God, make him pull over! Pull over, damn you! Pull over! Pull over!

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.