Beer with a Cop Chaser

As has been widely reported, the US Supreme Court has ruled in Scott v. Harris.  As stated in the SCOTUS Blog, the decision held:

Here is how the Court phrases the rule it established: “A police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

The Court’s decision, issued by Justice Antonin Scalia, has been called a “flat rule,” and castigated in a concurring (Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, separately) and dissenting (Justice Stevens) opinion as too absolute.   From the solid 6 vote majority opinion, the answer is one of total deference to the judgment of a police officer to use vehicular deadly force to stop a high speed car chase without it being held unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. 

This is insanity.  These justices, though clearly supportive of police, have demonstrated their total lack of connection to reality and, more significantly, that their support exceeds their realization that this is a license to kill.  Not the bad guys.  Us. 

Let’s take this from the top.  This decision was justified based on a videotape of a chase (the first to be published by the Court so all could see, bringing the Court into the YouTube generation.  From this single scenario, the Court has established a per se rule, engaging in the dreaded inductive reasoning that invariably fails in the harsh light of experience.  But they must have known that, because these aren’t a bunch of dopes.

A cop decides that he wants to stop a motor vehicle, so he turns on his lights.  The car doesn’t pull over, but insteads speeds up and drives away.  First question:  What was the reason for stopping the car in the first place.  Did the cop have probable cause to believe that the driver committed murder?  Was a tail light out?  Was the driver black?  These questions used to matter.

By his action in trying to stop the car, the cop initiates the confrontation that results in a high speed chase.  Granted, it’s not the cops fault that the driver doesn’t pull over, but then society can’t control the driver, but we can control the cop.  Or we used to be able to.

Next step is the cop making the decision to pursue the driver.  At this point, the cop makes a judgment call as to whether it is a better idea to escalate the situation into a high speed chase or not.  But if he doesn’t chase, you ask, what is he supposed to do?  Well, there’s always taking down the license plate and finding the driver later. Or radio other cars to find the car at a more propitious point where he can be stopped without need for a high speed chase.  Yes, Virginia.  There are alternatives.

But then the cop decides to pursue.  At high speeds.  And the chase is on.  So what?  This is one of the two things a police officer can do that presents the greatest risk of death to the miscreant, the cop and the public.  The other is discharge his weapon, but we will leave that for another per se rule day.  While police officers are trained in high speed driving, that doesn’t guarantee that they are very good at it.  Further, stuff seems to happen that interferes with your basis high speed chase, like mommies in SUVs with kids in the back entering intersections with the light just when Officer Parnelli Jones needs to go through.

The driver of the vehicle being chased, however, has no such high speed training.  He’s just full of adrenaline, ego or crack.  Maybe he’s just brain dead.  But even stupidity in the first degree doesn’t carry a death sentence.  At least it didn’t used to.

So there are two players on the road, driving very fast and uninclined to stop at traffic control devices, while the rest of us merrily go about our daily lives.  Our children carefully look both ways for the car traveling 30 miles per hour.  Our spouses are tired and irritable (okay, at least mine is) driving home.  And without warning, a car hurtles forward at an incredible velocity and then…BOOM!

For what?  A broken tail light?  A observation buy of a nickle bag of marijuana?  Is that all your life is worth?  Is that all anyone’s life is worth? 

It is not that I have no faith in the good judgment of cops.  I don’t imagine that every cop on the job is going to engage in high speed chases for the fun of it following Scott v. Harris.  But some will.  And someone will die because of it.  And our Supreme Court does not need to encourage this.  Indeed, put its seal of approval on it.  Maybe in the ivory tower of black robed punditry these unintended consequences never happen, but on the stretch of road that real people drive they do.  This is sheer insanity.  And this time, we will all pay the price.

2 comments on “Beer with a Cop Chaser

  1. David Nieporent

    I think your post is overwrought.

    1) The issue here, as you know, was whether the officer’s actions violated the criminal-driver’s constitutional rights, not whether the actions were wise vis-a-vis third-party bystanders. The fact that an innocent third party might be injured shouldn’t create a right of recovery for the criminal. (But, of course, nothing in the Court’s opinion has any bearing on liability of the cop towards the innocent bystander who might be injured. We can still disincentivize police officers from acting recklessly by holding them liable to third parties; we don’t need to reward criminals in order to deter cops.)

    2) You seem to be arguing against the policy of car chases. But the issue in this case wasn’t whether the chase itself was valid; there can’t be a constitutional right not to be chased. The issue here was whether forcefully STOPPING the chase was valid. Had the Court’s opinion come out the other way, the officers would have been left with two choices: break off the chase — thus rewarding any criminal who chooses not to stop when police try to pull him over — or continue the chase, thus endangering the very public you’re worrying about. And even if they break off the chase, there are no guarantees that the driver won’t continue to speed, and thus continue to endanger the public. Stopping him as quickly as possible is the best way to protect the public.

    3) The reason that the “reason for stopping the car in the first place” doesn’t matter is because it’s the speeding car itself that creates the risk to the public. Whether he was being pulled over for a broken tail light or murder doesn’t change the risk to the public of his high-speed getaway attempt.

    It’s true that the consequences of him getting away are different if he’s a murderer or litterer, but that’s not the issue here, as it was in Garner. The issue is the consequences of allowing him to continue driving 90 MPH on crowded roads. It’s his escape attempt itself (as opposed to merely climbing a fence and running away) that makes him a danger.

    4) The “they could have taken down the license plate and arrested him later” argument is frivolous, even if Stevens advanced it in his dissent. License plates identify cars, not drivers. In a situation where a driver speeds away when police try to pull him over, there is a reasonable chance that the car is stolen — in which case the license plate won’t do any good.

    They did try other ways to stop him, but he rammed the officer’s police car and continued speeding away. (Merely radioing ahead to block the road doesn’t do anything to protect the other drivers on the road between him and a roadblock.)

  2. SHG

    Your vision of reality seriously frightens me. 

    The fact that an innocent third party might be injured shouldn’t create a right of recovery for the criminal.

    The fact that innocent third parties might be injured is a really good reason to find police conduct unreasonable.   You’ve elevated the “right” of the government to pursue bad guys over the responsibility of the government not to kill or maim innocent bystanders.  This is a facile position, provided the innocent bystander who is killed or maimed isn’t your child.

    The reason that the “reason for stopping the car in the first place” doesn’t matter is because it’s the speeding car itself that creates the risk to the public.

    Cars that are pursued at high speed by police continue to flee at high speeds, and often even higher speeds and in a more reckless manner, because of the pursuit.  While high speed chases may make for great movies scenes, they make for tragic public policy.  Unless, of course, the absolute need to catch that litterer is paramount to the lives of children (see above).

    The “they could have taken down the license plate and arrested him later” argument is frivolous, even if Stevens advanced it in his dissent.

    Frivolous?  That’s a pretty strong word.  So let’s scrutinise it.  What I believe you mean is that the potential that subsequent police investigation may be unable to ascertain the identity of the high speed litterer, thus allowing the litterer to remain at large and threatening the potential of his being a serial litterer.  In contrast, we have the potential that the high speed litterer and the high speed police pursuer threatening the lives of children (see above).  Littering vs. death of innocent child.  Littering vs. death of innocent child.  My view is that the death of an innocent child comes first.  If that makes me frivolous. I plead guilty.

    Your attempt to parse the decision to limit its impact to the specific facts of that case is naive. You fail to recognize that this is a Supreme Court decision, which is intended and will be used to guide law enforcement conduct going forward.  Like all such decisions, it is subject to the law of unintended consequences.  Some people are so staunch in their world vision that getting the bad guy is worth as many innocent lives as it takes, that they don’t care about these unintended consequences.  Other people think that innocent lives come first.  Go figure.

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