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Talking Points

Question:
Did law enforcement violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizure during a high-speed chase that ended with a car crash that left the 19-year-old driver paralyzed?

Scott (Deputy)

Harris (Driver)

1. Did the situation presented by the driver warrant the type of seizure that the police conducted?

Affirmative. Yes.

Given the facts of the case, Deputy Scott's actions were permitted by the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment only prohibits "unreasonable seizures." Harris started on a course of action that made him a danger to himself and others. Not only did he refuse to stop when initially ordered to, but he also blatantly evaded the police—both in the parking lot where he was almost cornered, and after being chased by Deputy Scott. At this point, he was clearly a danger to himself and others, and thus the means by which Deputy Scott removed him from the road were permissible.

Negative. No.

Deputy Scott's actions in this matter were completely unreasonable. The underlying offense was a speeding violation. There was no evidence that Harris was a danger to himself and/or others. He only sped up to avoid being stopped by the police. Moreover, there was no evidence that pedestrians and/or other people were around when the chase and crash took place. The police acted in this manner solely to catch Harris, which they could have done later by taking down his license plate number. The unreasonableness of Deputy Scott's actions is manifested in the fact that they rendered a 19-year-old a quadriplegic for life.

2. Was the driver a threat to himself and others when he drove away from police?

Affirmative. Yes.

Garner does not control in this case because the facts are different. Here, an individual trying to evade arrest led police on a high-speed chase on a two-lane road. Harris was a threat to himself, the police, and any innocent bystanders who might have been present. This was not the case, as in Garner, of an unarmed burglar running from the police. It was an individual driving a potentially deadly vehicle at very unsafe speeds. Moreover, given these facts, even under Garner, the seizure was permissible in order to protect others from potential harm that Harris might cause.

Negative. No.

Garner controls in this case. Harris did not commit an underlying violent crime and there was no evidence that he was a threat to others if he remained at large. The video shows that all other traffic on the chase route had pulled over and Harris was not driving aggressively; he even used his turn signal more than once. As in Garner, the police officer issued no warning before using excessive force. In Garner, police were not permitted to shoot an unarmed, fleeing burglary suspect in order to arrest him. In this case, Deputy Harris was not permitted to engage in an action that rendered an otherwise law-abiding teenager a quadriplegic.

3. Was the police chase a reasonable action given the circumstances of this case?

Affirmative. Yes.

By the time Deputy Scott forced Harris off of the road, he had already failed to yield to the lawful commands of the police, and had evaded the police both in a speed trap and on the road. In short, he flouted the law and continued to pose a threat to himself, the police, and others. Under these circumstances, the police could not simply sit by and let Harris leave the scene. They had to take action to see that the law was enforced. Given the circumstances of this case, the actions that they took were reasonable.

Negative. No.

If Deputy Scott had not chased Harris and forced him off the road, it does not necessarily follow that Harris would have been rewarded for breaking the law. At worst, he would have gone home, and the police could have arrested him there. Since they knew his license plate number, they could find out where he lived. Moreover, they could set a trap to puncture his tires or take some equivalent action. What they were not permitted to do under the Fourth Amendment was to engage in an action, i.e., ramming the back of his car to force him off the road, which had a high probability of seriously injuring, or possibly even killing, the driver.

4. Was the high-speed chase necessary to stop the driver?

Affirmative. Yes.

The police were not responsible for making Harris a danger to others. He became a danger to others by speeding in the first place. This is why the police initially pulled him over. He continued to be a danger to others by evading the police. At all times, Harris had the option of ending this danger by surrendering. He chose not to do so. While Harris' injuries are tragic, blame for them lies with Harris, not Deputy Scott. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Harris would have slowed down if the police gave up their chase. After all, Harris was originally commanded to pull over for exceeding the speed limit. The police would have been derelict in their duties had they not tried to stop Harris.

Negative. No.

Harris' actions did not threaten the lives of pedestrians or other motorists. The police had blocked intersections, other drivers had pulled off the road or were traveling in the opposite direction. Further, the police, particularly Deputy Scott, are the ones who gave chase. Had the police not followed Harris after he sped up to evade them, it is likely that Harris would have slowed down.