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U.S. Supreme Court Decides on Scott v. Harris
Vehicle Pursuit Implications
By Jack Ryan

The United States Supreme Court concluded that an officer’s decision to terminate a pursuit by ramming the fleeing motorist, who’s driving posed a serious threat to other motorists, does not violate the 4th Amendment.

Victor Harris was clocked speeding by a deputy while driving a vehicle that was actively registered to him. When the deputy attempted to pull Harris over, Harris fled. The result was a six-minute pursuit that traveled nine miles. During the pursuit which reached speeds of 90 miles per hour, Harris crossed the center line, placing other motorists at risk and passed through two red lights. At one point he collided with a police cruiser that attempted to block his path in a parking lot.

During the pursuit, Deputy Scott sought a supervisor’s permission to use the PIT maneuver against Harris to stop the chase. The supervisor authorized Scott to “take him out.” At that point Scott determined that he was traveling too fast to use the PIT maneuver so he decided to ram Harris straight on instead. Harris was rendered a quadriplegic as a result of the crash caused by the ramming.

In its review of the case, the United States Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that they must only look at the facts found by the United State Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit which had concluded that Harris had fled in a somewhat safe manner. The Court decided that the facts, with respect to Harris’ dangerousness during the chase, were evident from a review of the video of the pursuit. They suggested that the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit should have reviewed the tape instead of relying on the trial court record. The Court concluded that the facts as alleged by the plaintiff with respect to the chase were clearly contradicted by the tape. The Court concluded that Harris’ actions during the pursuit did pose a significant danger to other motorists.

In analyzing the case, the Court determined that the reasonableness of the officer’s decision to terminate the pursuit must balance the danger to Harris by the officer’s actions against the danger to the public that the deputy was trying to eliminate. Additionally, the Court considered culpability. In other words, who has the most blame? The Court pointed out that Harris had the most blame. “It was [Harris], after all, who intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight that ultimately produced the choice between two evils that Scott confronted. Multiple police cars, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, had been chasing respondent for nearly 10 miles, but he ignored their warning to stop. By contrast, those who might have been harmed had Scott not taken the action he did were entirely innocent. We have little difficulty in concluding it was reasonable for Scott to take the action that he did.

The Court also rejected the argument regularly propounded by plaintiffs’ experts in pursuit cases, that if law enforcement simply stopped, the suspect would stop fleeing. The Court asserted: “But wait, says respondent: Couldn’t the innocent public equally have been protected, and the tragic accident entirely avoided, if the police had simply ceased their pursuit? We think the police need not have taken that chance and hoped for the best. Whereas Scott’s action—ramming [Harris] off the road—was certain to eliminate the risk that [Harris] posed to the public, ceasing pursuit was not. First of all, there would have been no way to convey convincingly to respondent that the chase was off, and that he was free to go. Had [Harris] looked in his rearview mirror and seen the police cars deactivate their flashing lights and turn around, he would have had no idea whether they were truly letting him get away, or simply devising a new strategy for capture. Perhaps the police knew a shortcut he didn’t know, and would reappear down the road to intercept him; or perhaps they were setting up a roadblock in his path. Given such uncertainty, [Harris] might have been just as likely to respond by continuing to drive recklessly as by slowing down and wiping his brow.”

“Second, we are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people’s lives in danger. It is obvious the perverse incentives such a rule would create: Every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times, and runs a few red lights. The Constitution assuredly does not impose this invitation to impunity-earned-by recklessness. Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: "A police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

Decision 8-1
Jack Ryan
LLRMI/PATC 4-30-07

SEE SIDEBAR SECTION ON THIS PAGE FOR MORE HISTORY OF THIS CASE


 

More History of Case

Survey

Vehicle Pursuit & Pursuit Tactics Survey Results

In November and December of 2006 a survey was conducted that addressed vehicle Pursuit Policy and Tactics, with specific emphasis on Ramming and Precision Immobilization Technique (P.I.T.). Over 1000 surveys were taken from all accross the country.

View Survey Results Here


Lower Courts Summary

Ramming During Pursuit Viewed As Deadly Force

Harris v. Coweta County
Summary of events leading to Supreme Court hearing of oral arguments.

In Harris v. Coweta County, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit analyzed a ramming during a police pursuit under deadly force principles and refused to grant the officer summary judgment or qualified immunity. The supervisor, who authorized Deputy Scott to perform the Precision Immobilization Technique during the pursuit was granted summary judgment and dismissed from the case because, while he authorized the P.I.T. maneuver, the deputy did not P.I.T. Harris’ vehicle but instead rammed the vehicle. The United States Supreme Court has decided to consider the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in this case.

Finish Article Here


Quick Reference

Pursuit Decision-Making Checklist

Police Pursuit Checklist

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