Scott v. Harris

PETITIONER: Timothy Scott
RESPONDENT: Victor Harris
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

ADVOCATES:
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."

Question

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 Oral Argument - February 26, 2007 in 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.

Antonin Scalia:

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.