When Hot Pursuit Takes a Deadly Turn

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In the classic Hollywood car chase scene, all that really matters is whether the cops get their man in the end, collateral damage and legal niceties be damned. Think Steve McQueen as Bullitt pursuing a black Dodge Charger through San Francisco and then, just outside the city, pulling along side to smack the car into a gas station for a pyrotechnic finish. Or Gene Hackman, as detective Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, careering through Brooklyn streets while chasing a villain in an elevated train, smashing cars along the way.

It's plenty of fun to watch, but it makes you wonder whether real-world cops could get away with half the behavior of their big-screen counterparts. And as a new case before the U.S. Supreme Court suggests, the answer is surprisingly murky.

Five years ago, Deputy Sheriff Timothy Scott of Coweta County, Ga., a rural area 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, had his own Bullitt moment. On a Thursday night at 11 p.m., as a second deputy watched from the side of the road, a car whizzed by doing 73 in a 55 mph zone. The deputy gave chase, his blue lights flashing, but the car accelerated quickly. It ran red lights, crossed double-yellow lines to pass other cars, and hit speeds exceeding 90 mph. Curiously, before every turn, the driver put on his blinker.

It soon became clear that this guy was not going to stop, so the deputy radioed for help, and Scott joined the chase. As the fleeing driver swerved into a shopping mall parking lot, Scott headed for the opposite side and tried to block the exit. The driver squeezed by, bumping Scott's car, which the deputy sheriff did not appreciate. He took the lead in the chase, and called his supervisor at headquarters for "permission to PIT" the driver.

A PIT — Precision Intervention Technique — is essentially what Bullitt was trying to pull off when he hit the black Charger in the left-rear door. If you bump another car in just the right spot, the car will spin and come safely to a stop. That's the theory, anyhow, and Scott's supervisor gave the go ahead to "take him out."

Like Bullitt, though, Scott encountered a few problems. The fleeing car was going way too fast for an accurate PIT, so Scott chose another strategy. Nine miles and six minutes into the chase, he rammed the car from behind, sending it off the road and down an embankment. There was no gas station at the bottom, but the crash was bad enough: It rendered the driver, 19-year-old Vincent Harris, a quadriplegic.

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