Brower v. Inyo County

PETITIONER: Georgia Brower, et al.
RESPONDENT: County of Inyo, et al.
LOCATION: Highway 395, Inyo County, California

DOCKET NO.: 87-248
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 489 US 593 (1989)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1989
DECIDED: Mar 21, 1989

ADVOCATES:
Philip W. McDowell - on behalf of the Respondents
Robert Gene Gilmore - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

On October 23, 1984, William James Caldwell died when the stolen car he was driving crashed into a police roadblock. He had been driving at high speeds in an effort to elude the police. The police placed an 18-wheel truck across both lanes of a highway and behind a blind curve so that Caldwell could not see it as he approached.

After Caldwell’s death, his heirs—including Georgia Brower, the administrator of his estate—sued the police in district court and alleged that such a roadblock constituted excessive force and violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed the case, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

 

Question

Can a police roadblock constitute an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

Media for Brower v. Inyo County

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1989 in Brower v. Inyo County

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 21, 1989 in Brower v. Inyo County

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in number 87-248 Brower versus Inyo County will be announced by Justice Sacalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on a writ of certiorari to the Ninth Circuit.

William James Caldwell, who is Brower was killed when a stolen car that he had been driving at high speeds at an effort to elude the police, crashed into a police roadblock.

His heirs, the petitioners here brought suit in Federal District Court, claiming that the roadblock amounted to excessive force and that respondents had therefore made an unreasonable seizure of Brower.

The allegations were that the roadblock had intentionally been set up just around the bend in the road at night with a police cruiser stationed with its high-beam headlights shinning in the eyes of the on-coming car, so that the crash would be inevitable.

The District Court dismissed the suit for failure to state a Fourth Amendment claim on the ground that the roadblock was reasonable under the circumstances.

The Court of Appeals affirmed but on a different theory concluding simply that no seizure had taken place.

Because the police roadblock terminated Brower's movement through means intentionally applied, we conclude that a Fourth Amendment seizure did take place.

We accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for consideration of whether the District Court erred in concluding that the roadblock was not unreasonable.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun joined.