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Scott v. Harris
High-Speed Chase Junkies, the Sequel

Junkie of the day

Not a surprise. The Supreme Court today gave its nearly unanimous backing to reckless police chases in the Georgia case involving driver Victor Harris and sheriff’s deputy Timothy Scott. It’s a double whammy for the driver rendered a quadriplegic by Scott, who bumped Harris from behind, sending him down an embankment and condemning him to life in a wheelchair: Not only is the decision an endorsement of police chasing even when cops break their own rules, which is what happened here: Scott didn’t know why Harris was fleeing (he joined the chase after it had begun), he had no training in high-speed-chase-maneuvering, as his own department’s regulations required him to have if he was going to bumb the suspect, his supervisor didn’t know why the chase was taking place, nor that Scott wasn’t qualified to execute certain maneuvers. But the justices, in the disdainful voice of Antonin Scalia, concluded that the case was so obvious to them that the driver had no right to submit his story to a jury. The car chase “posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others,” Scalia wrote. “No reasonable jury could conclude otherwise.”

Well, obviously a reasonable jury could, since a very reasonable member of the court (John Paul Stevens) and two lower courts were on the driver’s side at least to entitle him to take his case to a jury. As the Times reported, “The Supreme Court justices acknowledged that high-speed chases by the police can pose a danger, and said that they must be judged according to the specific facts. ‘We think it appropriate in this process to take into account not only the number of lives at risk, but also their relative culpability,’ Justice Scalia wrote. After all, he went on, it was the young driver who set off the terrible chain of events.” Not quite. The driver was going 73 in a 55. A cop flashed him. The driver (Victor Harris) refused to stop and started speeding. It was at that point that the cops ensured that the chase ended as it did by deciding to chase him.

As Stevens noted, they had his license tag. They could get him at any point. They didn’t need to chase. The decision to chase him, on slick roads, at night, not the driver’s act of breaking the speed limit, not the initial act of breaking the speed limit, is what led to the high-speed chase, and therefore its ensuing results. The justices leaped over that basic bit of logic to nail a “suspect” and trust the cops’ stories, as judges often (but not always) will, as this court, since the 1980s, nearly always has. Scalia is “loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people’s lives in danger.” But it’s not the getting away of suspect that puts people’s lives in danger in the overwhelming majority or these cases. It’s the chase itself. The fleeing drivers are usually imbeciles who’ve committed the pettiest infractions. The chase turns them into lethal missiles on wheels. Cops—because cops will be cops, and snubbing a cop is a mortal sin in this society—turn them, or themselves, into killers.

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