LOCATION:United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 05-1631
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 550 US 372 (2007)
GRANTED: Oct 27, 2006
ARGUED: Feb 26, 2007
DECIDED: Apr 30, 2007
Craig T. Jones – for the respondent
Gregory G. Garre – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Philip W. Savrin – for the petitioner
Facts of the case
After a police officer attempted to pull him over for speeding, Victor Harris fled in his vehicle, initiating a high-speed car chase. Attempting to end the chase, Deputy Timothy Scott rammed Harris’s vehicle with his police cruiser. Harris crashed and was rendered a quadriplegic. Harris sued Scott in federal District Court, alleging that Scott had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. Scott claimed qualified immunity as a government official acting in his official capacity, but the District Court rejected the claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
In order to show that a government official is not entitled to qualified immunity, a plaintiff is required to prove that the official violated a clearly established constitutional right. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Scott’s actions constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Because there was no imminent threat – Harris remained in control of his vehicle and the roads were relatively empty – Scott’s use of deadly force was unconstitutional. Although no Appellate Court had ruled on the specific question of the use of deadly force in a high-speed chase, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the limits on deadly force were “clearly established.”
1) Does a police officer who stops a high-speed chase by ramming a fleeing suspect’s car violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizure?
2) Was it “clearly established” in federal law that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment by using deadly force during a high-speed chase?
Media for Scott v. Harris
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 30, 2007 in Scott v. Harris
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Scalia has the opinion of the court in Case 05-1631, Scott versus Harris.
This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Convulsively it is not another peppy case.
In March 2001, Georgia County Deputy clocked respondent’s vehicle traveling at 73 miles an hour on a road with a 55-mile an hour speed limit.
The deputy activated his blue flashing lights indicating that respondent should pull over.
Instead respondent sped away initiating a chase at speeds exceeding 85 miles an hour.
Petitioner Deputy, Timothy Scott joined the pursuit along with other officers.
Six minutes and nearly 10 miles after the chase had begun, Scott decided to attempt to terminate the episode by applying his push bumper to the rear of respondent’s vehicle.
He did so and as a result respondent lost control of the vehicle which left the road way, ran down on bank and overturn and crashed.
Respondent was badly injured and was rendered a quadriplegic.
He filed suit against Deputy Scott alleging a violation of his federal constitutional rights mainly the use of excessive force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
In response, Scott filed a motion for summary judgment based on an assertion of qualified immunity.
The Eleventh Circuit denied that motion holding that the case should proceed to trial.
In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and hold that Deputy Scott is entitled to summary judgment because his actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
The first step in assessing the constitutionality of Scott’s actions is to determine the relevant facts.
When as here, the case is at the summary judgment stage, this usually means adopting as the Court of Appeals did, the plaintiff’s version of the facts.
There is however an added wrinkle in this case.
The existence in the record of a video tape from cameras mounted in the front of the pursued vehicles, capturing the events in question.
The video quite clearly contradicts the version of the story, told by respondent and adopted by the Court of Appeals.
In the video, we see respondent’s vehicle racing down narrow two-lane roads in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast.
We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, crossed the double yellow line and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders in order to avoid being hit.
We see it run multiple red lights and traveled for considerable periods of time in the occasional center and left turn only lane.
Far from being the cautious and controlled driver that the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent by-standers alike at great risk of serious injury.
Since, the dissent contradicts this account, we have made the video available on the Supreme Court Website at the web address sighted in footnote five of our opinion.
When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.
Respondent’s version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him.
The Court of Appeal should not have relied on such visible fiction, it should have view the facts in the light depicted by the video tape which shows that respondent was placing the innocent public at severe risk.
Judging the matter on that basis, we think it quite clear that Deputy Scott did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
It was respondent after all who intentionally engaged in the lengthy, reckless, high speed flight that posed an actual and imminent threat to numerous innocent lives.
Scott’s attempt to eliminate that threat by bumping respondent off the road was reasonable.
We reject respondent’s contention that the police should have broken off the chase, both because of that would not have provided assurance that respondent would slow down to a safe speed, and because of constitutional rule requiring the breaking off of chase would produce perverse incentives rewarding life threatening recklessness with impunity.
The constitution assuredly does not require such rule.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
Justices Ginsburg and Breyer have filed concurring opinions.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissent.
John Paul Stevens:
I should have briefly mentioned the four points that I made in my dissent.
The first, while the video tape described by Justice Scalia has convinced all eight of my colleagues that the police acted reasonably when they use deadly force to terminate the high speed chase.
It is significant that after viewing the same video, the district judge and all of the judges on the Court of Appeals all of whom are more familiar with driving conditions in Georgia than any of us, all concluded that the case raised a question that should be submitted to a jury and rather than to be decided by a group of elderly appellate judges.
Second, two significant facts that maybe overlooked by observers of the video explain why there were no accidents or even narrow misses during the chase.
It occurred in the late evening when traffic was light and no pedestrians were present, not a single one even in the shopping center that’s mentioned in the opinion.
Moreover, the risk of an accidental collision was significantly reduced by the fact that the police sirens gave other drivers the same warning that a siring on an ambulance or a fire engine does.
If you look at the video of the chase on the Internet, you will note that several vehicles pulled off the road and at the shoulder before respondent and the officer sped by.
The siren is somewhat muted because the video camera presumably was inside the police vehicle but it is obvious that it is significantly minimized the risk of an accident and it is true, that multiple that is two polices’ stop lights would run during the chase but because the drivers had been warned of the on-coming vehicles, they were all stationary when the police cars drove by.
So, the risk was not as dramatic as the majority suggests.
Third, this is a case in which the police did use deadly force.
Their decision to ram respondent’s car from behind at a very high speed in order to terminate the chase did not actually result in the driver’s death.
It did however render him in quadriplegic at the age of 19 and it was unquestionably and application of the force as deadly as the use of a firearm for example.
The fourth, the question whether it is reasonable to use deadly force to terminate a high speed chase against someone who has committed a speeding violation and who has also ignored a police command to stop, is a matter of debate among law enforcement professionals.
We now know that the police had respondent’s license number and could have arrested him after he got home, that at the time there was a possibility that he would escape punishment entirely if they abandoned the chase.
The choice was between letting him escape or using deadly force to get him off the road.
Under our cases, the choice they’ve made was reasonable yet it was necessary to protect third party from serious harm.
There is a brief file on behalf of the Georgia association which police points out when the danger to the public created by the pursuit is greater than the danger in allowing the suspect to remain at large then the pursuit should be discontinued.
Just as reasonable police officers might well disagree with the decision that was made in this case, it is equally clear to me that reasonable jurors could come to different conclusions about the reasonableness of what we now know was a tragic mistake.