Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Shock & Awe

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that concerns the right of suspects who led police on car chases to pursue lawsuits against the police. The case, Scott v. Harris, involved a Georgia teenager, Victor Harris, who led police on a high-speed chase after he was asked to pull over for speeding. When Harris was deemed to be posing a threat to other motorists and law enforcement officers, Deputy Timothy Scott used the so-called "PIT" maneuver -- precision intervention technique -- to spin Harris's car out of control. Because Harris was going at such a high speed (in excess of 100 mph), his car went airborne, flew down an embankment, and crashed. The accident left Harris a quadriplegic.

As it passed through the lower courts, the case simply asked whether it was valid for Harris to pursue legal action against Scott for the specific action he undertook to terminate the high-speed chase. The 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Harris could, in fact, take legal action against Scott. But by a vote of 8-1 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott did not violate Harris's Fourth Amendment right to resist unreasonable seizure, and thus had no grounds to file a lawsuit against Scott. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court, and Justice John Paul Stevens filed the lone dissent.

Although the outcome of this case didn't come as a surprise to many, considering the today's Court's conservative bent, what did strike a chord was the great degree to which the majority relied on the police videotape of the chase to frame/ground its decision. Indeed Justice Scalia writes, "Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at greater risk of serious injury." The videotaped evidence was so transparent to the majority that Scalia went so far as to say, "[Harris'] version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him... The Court of Appeals should not have relied on such visible fiction; it should have viewed the facts in the light depicted by the videotape."

According to Scalia's logic, Harris was so clearly running amok that he effectively forfeited his Fourth Amendment right and in a sense "forced" Scott to undertake the PIT maneuver. Had Scott not engaged the tactic, who knows what kind of ball-of-flame Hollywood pyrotechnics might have occurred? The opinion is clear: "Respondent intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in reckless, high-speed flight; those who might have been harmed had Scott not forced respondent off the road were entirely innocent. The Court concludes that it was reasonable for Scott to take the action he did. It rejects respondent’s argument that safety could have been assured if the police simply ceased their pursuit. The Court rules that 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."

Stevens, in a dissent he read out loud at the announcement of the decision (which is a rare tactic employed by dissenting Justices, reserved only for their most serious grievances with the majority opinion), rued how his colleagues had been taken in by the shock and awe of the videotaped evidence. Without in the least bit condoning Harris's action, Stevens focused more narrowly on the (Fourth Amendment-specific) question of whether the police actually took stock of their options in this pursuit, which the lower courts had suggested wasn't as "life-threatening" as the majority made it out to be. "I can only conclude that my colleagues were unduly frightened by two or three images on the tape," Stevens writes.

Acknowledging the novelty of the Court's consideration of videotaped evidence in this case, it's important to point out that Stevens, the oldest and most senior Justice (he was President Gerald Ford's appointee and, unfortunately for conservatives, has proven to be one of the Court's most liberal jurists for three decades and counting), actually provides the most reasonable view on how to "read" such material: not taken in by "two or three images on the tape," Stevens urges viewing the entire six-minute "chase," in context, because it shows that Harris may not have been driving in a manner so reckless that it merited the use of deadly force by the police. Stevens's direct and passionate dissent moves away from Scalia's "shock and awe" approach to the videotape to point out that what few cars were on the road at the time of the chase (late at night) might have pulled off to the side not because of Harris's recklessness but because of the flashing police lights and blaring police sirens that followed closely behind Harris's car. Stevens also points out that the prosecution's attempt to theorize what Harris might have done had Scott not ended the chase is pure speculation and not necessarily supported by the evidence of the tape.

Stevens thus summarizes his dissent in these forceful terms: "Relying on a de novo review of a videotape of a portion of a nighttime chase on a lightly traveled road in Georgia where no pedestrians or other “bystanders” were present, buttressed by uninformed speculation about the possible consequences of discontinuing the chase, eight of the jurors on this Court reach a verdict that differs from the views of the judges on both the District Court and the Court of Appeals who are surely more familiar with the hazards of driving on Georgia roads than we are." Stevens, we might paraphrase, wanted to defer to the lower courts for assessment of the "facts" of this case, which would include assessment of the relative merits of the police's decision to use deadly force to end the chase. Stevens's fellow jurists, on the other hand, abstracted the car-chase images from their context, much as the shock-and-awe TV program World's Wildest Police Videos does with its car-chase sequences (heavily edited, of course, to maximize the sense of danger these motorists pose to the public).

The Court's decision in Scott v. Harris is thus a significant blow to local, context-specific determinations of Fourth Amendment rights. It replaces conditional approval of the police's use of deadly force with an abstract defense of deadly force in all situations where the police themselves determine when a suspect poses a threat to society. The circuitousness of that logic -- where the police act on a determination that the police make -- refuses to grant any suspect the leverage to defend himself against accusation that he posed a deadly threat to society. Stevens's view wanted to do nothing more than grant Harris the chance to contest that serious, enormously consequential claim. That this claim was apparently self-evident to the eight other Justices after watching this Cops-style video is troubling.

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