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Supreme Court weighs police action in 100 mph chase

Story Highlights

Chase caught on tape
• Victor Harris was going 100 mph, crossing yellow line, passing many cars
• Dep. sheriff Timothy Scott hit Harris' car from behind to stop him
• Harris, 19 at the time of accident, is now a 25-year-old quadriplegic
By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reality-TV invaded the Supreme Court Monday, where a majority of justices seemed to support the actions of a deputy sheriff involved in a high-speed car chase and crash, caught on tape, that permanently injured a fleeing suspect.

At issue is whether Deputy Timothy Scott used "unreasonable" deadly force when he purposely drove his police cruiser into the back of Victor Harris' car in an effort to stop the vehicle. Harris become a quadriplegic as a result of the accident.

Scott's dashboard camera videotaped the six-minute chase. (Watch the car chase Video)

Harris, 19 at the time and driving on a suspended license, was never charged with a felony in the case, and his attorney claimed traffic citations were delivered to the young man while he was still in the hospital.

Neither he nor Harris agreed to be interviewed.

This is the first time the high court has heard a case involving police chases, and lower federal appeals courts have been split on the issue.

Eight of the nine justices admitted they had seen the tape of the chase before the oral arguments, and they seemed fascinated by it, debating it for an hour. Most appeared sympathetic to Scott's claim he was confronted by a fleeing motorist who refused to stop.

Harris "created a tremendous risk (for) drivers on that road," said Justice Samuel Alito.

"He created the scariest chase I ever saw since 'The French Connection,'" said Justice Antonin Scalia, likening it to the 1971 movie noted for its wild pursuit sequence.

"The question was whether he was creating a substantial risk" to other drivers, added Justice David Souter. "How could a jury find otherwise?"

But while the justices might back Scott's actions, the high court may be forced to conclude a jury could see things differently.

A legal sticking point is whether the law was sufficiently clear at the time of the 2001 incident, so that Scott should have known his actions were in obvious violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, when he rammed the vehicle.

The justices might throw the case back to the lower courts and let them decide, thereby sidestepping the broader constitutional questions. The lawsuit was put on hold while such questions were appealed.

The facts of the case presented stark legal differences over how force should be applied in a broader context of police pursuits.

The police video shows Harris speeding more than 100 miles an hour, leading officers across two counties. At times he crosses the double yellow line on the road to pass about 36 cars.

At one point, Harris pulls into a shopping center parking lot, with Scott and two deputies trying to block him. Harris then hits Scott's vehicle while fleeing. The officer radios his supervisor requesting permission to use potentially deadly force to stop Harris.

"Let me have him, my car's already tore up," he says on the tape.

"Go ahead and take him out," orders the supervisor.

But Scott later stated Harris was going too fast and he was worried about other drivers on the road, so the officer rammed the escaping Buick directly with his push bumper, causing it to go airborne down an embankment and crash.

"If Scott had stopped the pursuit at that point (in the parking lot), maybe he would have slowed down," suggested Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Studies introduced by Harris' lawyers have shown a majority of speeding drivers would do just that. "If the police weren't after him, there is no indication that he would have been (continuing) speeding."

"Well, he was speeding before police knew about him, right?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts. "That's where this all started."

"At any time, Mr. Harris could have either slowed down his vehicle or stopped, and he chose not to do that," said Philip Savrin, Scott's attorney.

But Souter wondered whether ramming a car at 90 miles an hour was justified. "How could such a belief be reasonable?"

Harris had testified he was scared when officers first turned on their sirens, and did not want his car impounded.

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story.chase.jpg

A scene from the police video taken of the crash that paralyzed plaintiff Victor Harris.

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