Wednesday, May 02, 2007

High Speed Chases According to the Supremes

Orin Kerr points this one out at the Volokh Conspiracy.
Scott v. Harris and Driving in the 1930s: Over at SCOTUSblog, Marty Lederman notes a rather curious footnote in Justice Stevens' dissent in Scott v. Harris. In footnote 1, Justice Stevens speculates about why he has such a different view of the videotape than the Justices in the majority. Stevens speculates that the Justices in the majority may have overestimated the risk of the chase because they learned to drive when most high-speed driving took place on superhighways:
I can only conclude that my colleagues were unduly frightened by two or three images on the tape that looked like bursts of lightning or explosions, but were in fact merely the headlights of vehicles zooming by in the opposite lane. Had they learned to drive when most high-speed driving took place on two-lane roads rather than on super-highways — —when split-second judgments about the risk of passing a slowpoke in the face of oncoming traffic were routine— — they might well have reacted to the videotape more dispassionately.
This is a strange suggestion, I think. If I understand Stevens correctly, he's suggesting that perhaps Justice Scalia (who is 71) can't accurately judge the dangers of driving at high speeds on a back road because he's too young to have learned how to drive comfortably in that sort of setting.
A bit ridiculous I'd say. The contention is that the judges are making poor judgements rather than making the consideration that maybe a 19-year old driver at excessive speed was likely an extreme hazard. Especially to oncoming traffic. I think Stevens gave the driver more credit for ability than is warranted.
points out these important parts of the decision.
A couple of points are clear from the Court’s decision:
  • This case is not about the PIT Maneuver. While Deputy Scott asked permission to utilize PIT, he determined that he was going too fast to do so, and he rammed the vehicle instead. A precision maneuver such as PIT is not the same as ramming a vehicle.
  • The Court clearly places the blame on the suspect and rejects the idea that if the police had cancelled the pursuit, the public would be safer, citing: “. . .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.” The Court went on to say that the incentive would be “escape.”
  • It is hard to say what the outcome of this case would have been if Deputy Scott did not have a video of the pursuit. The court relied on this evidence; clearly, law enforcement needs to embrace this technology. The suspect had been dishonest in his account, but Deputy Scott was protected because the incident was taped.

This decision by the Court tells law enforcement that if they engage in a vehicle pursuit that endangers the lives of “innocent bystanders,” and the fleeing motorist is at risk of serious injury or death based on the actions of an officer in pursuit, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.

While this ruling sides with law enforcement and its efforts to apprehend criminals that flee in vehicles, it should not give agencies carte blanche authority to engage in high speed pursuits and tactical maneuvers without the proper training.

Definitely an odd case that does focus on the understanding that police need to have the ability to make on-sight decisions on the use of lethal force when in a high-speed chase, just as they do when using firearms to stop a criminal.

No comments: