County of Sacramento v. Lewis

PETITIONER: County of Sacramento
LOCATION: Sacramento County Police Department

DOCKET NO.: 96-1337
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 833 (1998)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1997
DECIDED: May 26, 1998

Paul J. Hedlund - Argued the cause for the respondents
Terence J. Cassidy - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Philip Lewis was a passenger on a motorcycle that was involved in a high-speed police chase. The chase ended when the motorcycle's driver lost control and tipped the bike over, hurling both riders to the pavement. James Smith, one of two pursuing Sacramento county sheriff's deputies, was unable to stop his car in time and skidded into Philip, causing fatal injuries. Philip's parents, Teri and Thomas Lewis, accused Smith and the Sacramento county police department of deliberate and reckless conduct which ultimately deprived their son of his due process right to life and his protection against unconstitutional seizure. On appeal from an appellate court's reversal of a district court decision favoring Smith, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Are the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive due process protection, or the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against illegal seizure, violated by a police officer who, in the course of pursuing a subject, causes their death through deliberate or reckless indifference?

Media for County of Sacramento v. Lewis

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 1997 in County of Sacramento v. Lewis

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1337, the County of Sacramento v. Teri Lewis and Thomas Lewis.

Mr. Cassidy.

Terence J. Cassidy:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Deputy Smith is entitled to qualified immunity in this case on the grounds that the law regarding substantive due process claims under the Fourteenth Amendment was not clearly established at the time of the police pursuit in this case in May of 1990.

In that regard, the legal standard was not sufficiently well-developed, nor were the factual contours of such a claim developed so as to put a reasonable officer in the position of Deputy Smith on notice of what type of conduct would constitute a violation of substantive due process in the context of a police pursuit.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

May I ask you a question right at the start, please, Mr. Cassidy?

The County of Sacramento apparently takes the position that a substantive due process violation does arise from a negligently conducted police chase of someone.

I mean, you don't raise the question whether there is a substantive due process violation at all.

You apparently assume there is, and then just want us to decide what standard to apply.

Do I understand correctly that's your position on behalf of the county?

Terence J. Cassidy:

Justice O'Connor, no, we do not concede that a negligent claim would support a violation of substantive due process.

In fact, we have--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, do you concede that on the facts in this case, the police pursuit case before us, that the only inquiry is what standard to apply, because there would be a substantive due process violation?

Terence J. Cassidy:

--The petitioners in this case have asserted that the proper question presented is whether or not... what... the proper legal standard to be applied in a claim for substantive due process.

There are amici briefs which have asserted that no claim lies in this case because of the accidental nature of the conduct involved.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

But that's not the position taken by the county.

Terence J. Cassidy:

Upon reflection, I would agree with that position as asserted by amici.

However, it had not been asserted in the lower court or by us in our briefing.

Antonin Scalia:

So what am I supposed to do?

I mean, you give me two options, that it's a substantive due process violation if it's... if it shocks the conscience, or if it's grossly negligent conduct.

What if I think none of the above?

Terence J. Cassidy:

Justice Scalia--

Antonin Scalia:

Do I pick grossly negligent conduct because that's the closest to not having a substantive due process violation at all?

Terence J. Cassidy:

--Well, no, Your Honor.

We would respectfully submit that in the event this Court determines to adopt the type of approach it did in Albright v. Oliver and determine that all claims perhaps involving a seizure fall within the Fourth Amendment standards, then there would be no claim available under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Antonin Scalia:

Well, I certainly thought that's what this case was about when I first read about its facts.

I mean, we've had a number of cases involving police chases and they always come up as unreasonable seizure cases.

Terence J. Cassidy:

And I would--

Antonin Scalia:

Lo and behold, I read this thing and it's somehow a substantive due process violation put in a whole different category of constitutional analysis, and the city just goes along with that.

Is there any case on record in which somebody has asserted that something like this... a court has held that something of this sort is a substantive due process violation?