Those to whom the public delegates the ever vital authority to serve and protect must ever operate with good prudence and judgment. There is little question that these individuals and agencies are charged with great responsibility and have a challenging job to perform, particularly as that job often requires balancing competing needs and risks and making quick decisions upon which peopleâ€™s lives may depend. On occasionâ€”though it may feel counterintuitiveâ€”the authorities must opt to forgo or relinquish intervention, because the potential costs of pursuing such exceed the potential benefits. Thus, however unfortunate, there are times when ending a pursuit is the wisest and safest choice.
These circumstances are brought to mind as a result of the Supreme Courtâ€™s decision this week to hear arguments on a case involving a police officerâ€™s use of deadly force while in pursuit of a suspect. The Washington Post provides coverage:
The Supreme Court stepped into the national debate on the risks of high-speed police car chases yesterday, announcing that it will decide whether the Constitution permits police to use deadly force against a fleeing motorist whose only suspected offense is speeding or reckless driving.
The court’s decision was a victory for a Georgia police officer appealing a ruling earlier this year by the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. That court had concluded that the officer acted unreasonably by ramming a fleeing speeder, causing a crash that left the driver, Victor Harris, paralyzed….
When the court hears arguments in Scott v. Harris…early in 2007, it will be the first time the justices have reexamined the constitutional prerequisites for employing deadly force against unarmed fleeing suspects since 1985.
In that case, which involved not a speeder but a suspected burglar, the court ruled that police may use deadly force only when they have good reason to believe someone will be killed or injured if they do not.
“It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape,” the court ruled. “A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”
The 11th Circuit cited that ruling to support its decision against Scott, noting that Harris was not suspected of any offense more serious than speeding, a misdemeanor, and posed little risk to the public because the streets were empty at the time….
Pursuits — even of armed and dangerous suspects — have become controversial in recent years, because of the risk they can pose to third parties and police officers themselves.
How the Supreme Court will ultimately rule here remains uncertain, though it seems clear that the crux of the case involves examining the supposed exigency of the circumstances and then determining what standards for forceful intervention need apply and whether those standards were reasonably met. Was deadly force justified? And, more broadly, when ought the authorities bite the bullet (and break off pursuit) versus use the bullet? What is acceptable?
The same set of questions could perhaps be used to examine this countryâ€™s recent foreign policy, in particular the Bush administrationâ€™s use of deadly force in Iraq in its pursuit of Saddam Hussein and his phantom WMDs. Many before and the vast majority now believe the invasion and subsequent occupation were not justified. The circumstances were not sufficiently exigent, the threat was overblown, and the dangers and costs of intervention were too great. Nonetheless, the authorities in this case refused to break off their pursuit and continue to do soâ€”to the detriment of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. To break off pursuit even now is pejoratively viewed as cutting and running. But what the authoritiesâ€”i.e., Bush and his cohortsâ€”appear reluctant to acknowledge are established legal standards and precedents which assert, in effect, that it is sometimes better to cut oneâ€™s losses than to risk disproportionate harm. Failure to adhere to the rule of law on such matters opens the door to much unnecessary devastation, as well as possible civil and criminal penalties.
So how might the Supreme Courtâ€”if they could be relied upon to be sufficiently objectiveâ€”rule in a case such as Bush v. Iraq? Would the Court find that the defendant, George W. Bush, did willfully and recklessly engage in a pursuit that included the use of deadly force, while discounting or distorting the necessity of this pursuit and ignoring the likelihood of causing considerable damage and loss of life as a result? What would the verdict be? Perhaps the ruling that is to come in Scott v. Harris might shed some light upon the darkness. Stay tuned.