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Supreme Court hears suit over police-chase death

Law enforcement officials contend that high-speed chases result in far more arrests than accidents   

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on when police can be held liable for someone's death or injury in high speed chases.

It's a situation seen all too often on local TV news: a speeding car, police in swift pursuit, then a sudden and often tragic ending where the victim may neither be the pursuer nor the pursued.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether a deputy can claim "qualified immunity" in the 1990 death of 16-year-old Philip Lewis, a passenger on a motorcycle pursued and accidentally struck by a police car after a chase at speeds approaching 100 mph.

Lewis' parents say Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy James E. Smith violated their son's 14th Amendment right to due process under the law by engaging in a dangerous pursuit.

Motorcycle passenger Lewis died in a 1990 police chase   

"This is a phenomenal problem" that kills hundreds of people every year, the Lewises' lawyer, Paul J. Hedlund, told the court. Smith's chase of Lewis, who was a passenger on a motorcycle, was an "incredibly reckless act," Hedlund said.

But some justices appeared skeptical.

"It was at most an irresponsibly speedy chase," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "Is there any evidence that there was an intent to kill anybody?"

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said, "Do you think that high-speed auto chases are the sort of things the (Constitution's) 14th Amendment was designed to prevent? In 1868?"

Hedlund responded, "Although the framers didn't know about cars, they certainly knew about arbitrary, abusive, oppressive government ... depriving innocent people of their lives every day without any justification."

The deputy -- supported in friend-of-the-court briefs by about half the states and a dozen California cities and counties -- maintains he should not have to go to trial.

"There is a simple remedy in this case, and that is to pull over and stop and yield to lawful authority," said Smith's lawyer, Terence J. Cassidy.

Lewis was a passenger on a motorcycle chased by Smith's police car on the night of May 22, 1990. A deputy in another car had tried to stop the motorcycle, and when it took off Smith followed in a chase that forced two other cars and a bicyclist off the road.

The pursuit ended when the motorcycle skidded to a halt. Smith's car hit Lewis while trying to stop, knocking him nearly 70 feet down the road. Lewis was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Lewis family has already won a federal court judgment saying they could force the deputy to pay damages if they could show he acted with "in reckless disregard" for the teen-ager's safety.

Watch police pursue a robbery suspect in Las Vegas last December. The driver of a left-turning car collided with the passenger side of the suspect's vehicle. The motorist was not hurt badly.
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Other courts, however, have set a different, higher standard for police liability, defined as actions so outrageous they "shock the public conscience." State and local governments argue police will be handicapped if the threshold for legal responsibility is lowered.

"It makes it too easy to sue the police and will unquestionably have a discouraging effect on police pursuits that ought to be engaged in," says Richard Ruda of the State and Local Legal Center.

There are hundreds of police pursuits in the United States each year. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America says federal officials have documented 5,306 deaths during police pursuits in the last 16 years.

"Police officers should be considering is it worth the risk of an accident or the risk of human life for the type of crime I'm pursuing," says Howard Friedman of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "In the Lewis case, the officers just wanted to talk to two juveniles riding on a motorcycle."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has approved guidelines for when officers should break off a pursuit. Congress is considering a national standard for police pursuits, but that may not be welcome.

"The guidelines that govern pursuits should all be questions of state and local law and police," Ruda says. "Police activity is essentially a state responsibility."

Many police departments have their own guidelines to minimize risks to the public. And law enforcement officials contend pursuits lead to far more arrests than accidents.

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected by July.

The case is County of Sacramento vs. Lewis, 96-1337.

Correspondent Charles Bierbauer contributed to this report.


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