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Supreme Court May Limit Police in High-Speed Chases

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Supreme Court May Limit Police in High-Speed Chases

Sean Maroney
Washington, D.C.
Voice of America
February 27, 2007

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 350 people die each year in police chases. These high-speed chases become especially dangerous when law enforcement officials hit a suspect's car with their patrol vehicle after the driver fails to pull over. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on whether this method violates constitutional protections. VOA's Sean Maroney has the story.

High-speed police chases are dramatic, dangerous and often deadly.

Nineteen-year-old Victor Harris knows the dangers all too well after a late night on a damp Georgia highway. With speeds topping 145 kilometers per hour, Harris failed to pull over for officers. What happened next changed his life forever.

"Fifty six, sixty six. Permission to PIT him?" asks a police officer while pursuing the car. "Go ahead and take him out. Take him out!" is the reply from his supervisor over the police radio.

Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott's decision to "take him out" is called a "Precision Intervention Technique." An officer bumps a fleeing car at an angle to spin it out of control, forcing it to stop.

The move is risky, and Harris' lawyer, Craig Jones, says his client paid too great a price when he lost control of his Cadillac and careened down an embankment. "My client is now paralyzed from the head down."

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in Harris' case on whether individuals are constitutionally protected against this technique. The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. So if the Court decides Scott acted unreasonably, he will lose his immunity and could be sued.

Cities across the country are also considering whether to ban or limit these high-speed chases.

Jones says his client was just a scared traffic violator, driving with a suspended license. "The mere fact that someone is driving unsafely or driving in violation of traffic laws, is that enough reason to be able to use deadly force to stop them?"

Deputy Scott's lawyer, Philip Savrin, says his client's actions were justified. "It's about decisions police officers have to make on the spur of the moment when confronted with rapidly unfolding and dangerous situations. It really isn't about Deputy Scott."

It is about how far police can go to stop a suspect from getting away.

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