When Hot Pursuit Takes a Deadly Turn

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Harris no doubt regretted his attempt to dodge a ticket for speeding. But if he was in a penitent mood, it did not last for long. He sued Scott and the county in federal district court near Atlanta, claiming that the deputy had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable seizure. The seizure, Harris's lawyers argued, was the use of Scott's police cruiser to stop Harris's car. It was unreasonable, the lawyers continued, because Scott inflicted deadly force on a suspect who was not all that dangerous, to Scott or anyone else.

You see the problem here: While Bullitt was getting shot at from the car he was chasing, Scott was in no particular peril. He had phoned in Harris's license plate, he knew there were no warrants for the teenager's arrest, and the streets were virtually empty. Scott could have let Harris go and arrested him later. No paralysis for Harris, no lawsuit against Scott.

Still, it's impossible to know the mind of a fleeing suspect — or what can happen when a car rockets down the highway at close to 100 mph. From Scott's point of view, Harris no doubt had to be stopped before he, quite literally, killed someone. In any event, as a government official, Scott was immune from suit so long as he acted reasonably and within the scope of his job.

Scott pushed the immunity argument in asking the federal district court, and then the U.S. Court of Appeals, to dismiss the lawsuit. He lost both times. It was entirely possible, the judges said, that Scott had acted unreasonably and violated Harris's rights, and the case was at least strong enough to go to a jury. Scott should also have known, they ruled, that the law prohibited using a car as a deadly weapon against a fleeing suspect who wasn't a serious threat. (The appeals court let Scott's supervisor off the hook because he had authorized a PIT, not the deadly rear-end bump.)

On October 27, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Scott's appeal. The pivotal issue will be how the court rules on the use of deadly force against fleeing suspects in car chases. The justices have never considered that question, and while the lower courts' judgments seem compelling, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and other conservative justices have been inclined to support police officers who make split-second decisions on apprehending suspects. There's a fair degree of suspense about how the high court will rule (probably late this spring), but it's very different from Hollywood's brand of suspense. In this car chase scene, the legal niceties are a matter of life and death.

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