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The most important aspect of a recent Supreme Court decision involving high-speed pursuits by law enforcement officers may be how it relates to documentation of the incidents, say some law enforcement liability experts.
That is evident in the high court's decision, for the first time, to post a video on its Web site of the incident on which the court ruled.
The police video shows the events that led the court's majority to rule in Timothy Scott vs. Victor Harris that a Georgia deputy sheriff did not violate a suspect's Fourth Amendment protections against the use of excessive force during a seizure when an officer rammed the suspect's car during a high speed chase. The action left the suspect paraplegic (BI, May 7).
Writing for the 8-1 majority, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia rejected the argument of Mr. Harris--the fleeing suspect--that halting the chase would have assured public safety.
"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," he wrote.
But experts say that the court's ruling doesn't mean that law enforcement personnel will throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of wrongdoers, though some officers may be tempted to act with less caution in the short term.
"It's a very limited opinion," said Geoff Alpert, a professor in the criminology and criminal justice department of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who specializes in police-pursuit issues. "It has nothing to do with innocent third parties and is limited to Fourth Amendment claims by the fleeing suspects."
But "while you may have a constitutional ability to ram someone who is wreaking havoc on the roadways, it doesn't give you a green light to chase helter skelter as you did in the 1970s."
"I think it's a little bit limited," said Laura Peterson, risk manager for the State of Nebraska in Lincoln. Ms. Peterson, who is a director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Public Risk Management Assn. "It's very much a contact-based case," which are types of cases where the Fourth Amendment applies.
In the short-term, the case may lead to some officers taking additional chances, some observers said.
"To get the bad guys off the street--it might lead some officers to proceed less cautiously themselves," said Pat Gallagher, president of Gallagher-Westfall Group Inc. in Springtown, Pa., and co-director of the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, a division of the Indianapolis-based Public Agency Training Council. "Getting wrapped up in trying to keep up with this speeding violator--they might start taking chances."
"It probably will increase high- speed pursuits," agreed James Ginger, chief executive officer of Willis, Va.-based Public Management Resources, a policy management and training consultant and a member of the LLRMI advisory board. There will be some pressure "to allow officers to engage in those types of pursuits" at least in the short term, he said.
The decision is "not really going to affect" the policies and procedures of Columbia, Mo., police officers, said Sarah Perry, risk manager for the city of Columbia. "Our police department didn't feel this would have any change on how they do high-speed pursuit or don't do it," said Ms. Perry, who is also a PRIMA director.
The decision may lead to filming of incidents by police, some observers say.
"I think Scott vs. Harris will influence departments to put cameras in the cars so they document performance," Mr. Gallagher said
"I think it can have wide-ranging implications in the sense in what the court seems to have done," said Thom P. Rickert, regional service officer for Willis Group Holdings in San Antonio. "It said 'hey, if we can see it, we can make a fact decision on making summary judgment.'
"They have proven to be an effective risk management tool," said Ms. Perry. "Very typically, they've been useful to us in the event of vehicle accidents, especially during a pursuit."
Law enforcement officers would "agree cameras are good thing," said Greg Langan, loss control director of the public entity and scholastic division of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Mendota Heights, Minn.
"The officers know they're on tape and I think that the officer is more prone to exhibit appropriate behavior and follow the training they've been given because they know they're on tape," he said.