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Police chase raises serious questions


Whether you are a municipal or county risk manager or just a parent of a young driver, you have to be following the police immunity case that the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing.

The justices are deciding whether to grant immunity to a sheriff's deputy whose maneuver to end a high-speed chase left the fleeing driver seriously injured.

The deputy has to be hoping that the comedic genius of Chico Marx is the turning point in this litigation. During oral arguments in the case, Justice Stephen Breyer rattled off a classic one-liner by the funnyman in an exchange that indicated the jurist did not entirely buy the plaintiff lawyer's arguments.

If other justices--some of whom can snap off their own pithy one-liners--appreciate Justice Breyer's observation, the deputy and public entity risk managers nationwide could come out of this litigation in good shape.

The plaintiff, Victor Harris, was 19 in March 2001 when a Coweta County, Ga., sheriff's deputy clocked him driving 18 mph over the 55 mph limit.

Rather than pull over, Mr. Harris sped off.

Why, especially when he had a clean record? My guess: He was 19.

Another deputy, Timothy Scott, then joined the chase. A dispatcher, though, informed Deputy Scott only that Mr. Harris had refused to pull over. The deputy was not informed that Mr. Harris' original infraction was speeding--not a violent felony that would have made his capture more important.

During the chase, Mr. Harris never lost control of his vehicle and even signaled his turns. But a patrol car video camera tape showed that he passed other motorists by heading into oncoming traffic and blew a couple of red lights. He also collided with Deputy Scott's patrol car in a parking lot and took off again. The video can be viewed online at a variety of news sites, including and

The chase ended when Mr. Harris crashed after his vehicle was rammed by Deputy Scott's patrol car. Mr. Harris' injuries left him a quadriplegic, and he sued the county and the deputy.

In 2005, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's finding that the deputy is not entitled to immunity from liability because he violated Mr. Harris' Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force.

Twenty years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that police may use deadly force to stop a driver who is endangering police or the public. But Mr. Harris' argument is that while he was driving unsafely, he was not driving "assaultively."

Statements by justices during oral arguments often do not foretell how they will rule, but several justices seemed troubled by Mr. Harris' driving.

For example, referring to the chase video, Justice Breyer conjured the Chico Marx line that is astoundingly right on point in this case. Justice Breyer suggested that the 11th Circuit's ruling essentially poses the question: "Who do you believe--me or your own eyes?"

Among others, Justice Arthur Kennedy did not seem impressed with Mr. Harris' use of turn signals. "That's like the strangler who observes the no smoking sign," he pointedly, if brutally, observed.

But even if the Supreme Court overturns the 11th Circuit, would it be too much to ask police dispatchers to give all field officers the 411 on why they're pursing a fleeing vehicle?

In this case, the deputies could have peeled off and met Mr. Harris at his house.

Meanwhile, parents have to hope their kids exercise better judgment than, sadly, the young Mr. Harris did.