The lead officer radioed for permission to execute a "PIT," a Precision Intervention Technique. Any episode of COPS or other reality based police program has featured this maneuver. The technique requires that a fleeing vehicle be struck at a specific point, thereby throwing it into a spin and causing it to halt.
Professional law enforcement standards require that an officer be specifically trained in this risky maneuver.
In this case, neither of the officers involved had received the required training.
Despite this training deficit, the supervising officer gave permission for the PIT maneuver, telling him to "Go ahead and take him out. Take him out." This officer was also unaware that the pursuit began over a speeding violation.
The officer leading the chase determined that the vehicles were traveling too fast to conduct the PIT maneuver and instead, rammed the vehicle directly, causing Harris to leave the roadway and crash. Harris suffered sever injuries, and was rendered a quadriplegic. Harris then sued, alleging that the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizures by their use of excessive force.
The outcome of this case is significant because police pursuits are common occurrences, hundreds or even thousands each year, and many ending tragically with the death or serious injury of law enforcement officers, bystanders, and offenders. Because of concerns of liability, most agencies have adopted restrictive pursuit procedures which routinely require supervisory permission to maintain a pursuit and which frequently allow some violators to escape apprehension.
For constitutional purposes, a "seizure" occurs when police use a vehicle to stop and apprehend a suspect. The officers involved in the Harris case do not dispute that a "seizure" occurred.
What is at issue, and what the Supreme Court will soon decide, is whether the force used by police to effectuate the seizure was "reasonable". The Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of "unreasonable" searches and seizures. Should the Court determine that the amount of force used was unreasonable as a matter of law, Harris's lawsuit will be allowed to go forward and the officers and their employer could face a civil trial to determine if Harris is entitled to monetary damages. Of course, a Georgia jury might simply determine that the officers acted correctly and find that they are not liable.
One federal court has already determined though that the officers' actions were unjustified, noting that there was no probable cause to believe that Harris had prior to the commencement of the pursuit, committed a crime involving the use or threatened use of death or serious physical harm, nor were there warrants outstanding for Harris. Two of the three officers involved in the chase had no idea why Harris was even being pursued.
Prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions have looked with greater favor on police officers decisions relating to pursuits. In a 1998 decision, the Court indicated that police officers can't be liable in such circumstances except where the officers' actions "shock the conscience".
The issue of whether to pursue or not pursue is complex. Lives hang in the balance at each decision. And one must wonder, can we afford a society where the only people who are subject to the law are those who voluntarily submit to its jurisdiction?