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Court Rules on High-Speed Chases

Police officers usually cannot be forced to pay damages under a federal civil-rights law for killing or injuring someone during a high-speed chase, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday.

The court ruled that the parents of a California teen-ager struck and killed by a deputy's car cannot sue the deputy under a federal civil rights law. The justices said police can be held liable only when their actions would "shock the conscience."

In other action Tuesday, the court:

  • Ruled that Ellis Island is mostly in New Jersey, ordering New York to share bragging rights to the nation's gateway for millions of immigrants. New York can lay claim to only part of the island's 27.5 acres, said the justices' 6-3 ruling.

  • Let South Carolina continue prosecuting women who use crack cocaine or other illegal drugs while pregnant. The justices, without comment, turned away arguments by two imprisoned women that the state should not be allowed to use its child-endangerment law to punish pregnant women for conduct that could affect their fetuses.

  • Refused to revive an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against ABC News by a flight attendant who was on the plane trip O.J. Simpson took the night his ex-wife was murdered. The court, without comment, turned away Beverly Deteresa's argument that she should be allowed to sue over ABC's use of a hidden camera and audiotape when she talked to a newsman at her front door.

  • Turned away without comment a suit by antiabortion protesters from North Carolina. The court rejected the protesters' argument that the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act discriminates against abortion opponents.
In the police-chase decision, the court rejected a more lenient standard urged by the youth's parents, whose lawsuit accused the deputy of violating their son's constitutional rights by engaging in a dangerous pursuit at speeds approaching 100 mph.

"We hold that high-speed chases with no intent to harm suspects physically or to worsen their legal plight do not give rise to liability under the Fourteenth Amendment" and federal civil rights law, Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.

"A police officer deciding whether to give chase must balance on one hand the need to stop a suspect and show that flight from the law is no way to freedom, and, on the other, the high-speed threat to everyone within stopping range, be they suspects, their passengers, other drivers, or bystanders," Souter said.

The ruling reversed a federal appeals court decision that let the parents of 16-year-old Philip Lewis sue Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy James E. Smith over their son's death on May 22, 1990.

Lewis was a passenger on a motorcycle that failed to stop when another deputy tried to flag it down. The chase went through several stop signs and forced two other cars and a bicyclist off the road. The pursuit ended when the motorcycle skidded to a alt.

Smith tried to stop his car but hit Lewis, knocking him nearly 70 feet down the road. The youth was pronounced dead at the scene.

The boy's parents, Teri and Thomas Lewis, sued Smith. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, the deputy argued that people who sue over police chases should have to meet a higher standard. Police should be held legally liable only if their actions "shock the conscience," his appeal said.

Four other federal appeals courts had adopted a similar standard. The deputy's appeal was supported by 23 states and a number of state and local government organizations.

Souter was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas agreed that the youth's family could not sue, but for different reasons.

Written by Laurie Asseo