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In short: Police officer's attempt to terminate a
high speed vehicle chase by forcing the vehicle
off the road was reasonable, and thus did not
violate the fourth amendment.
Official Syllabus:
Deputy Timothy Scott, petitioner here,
terminated a high-speed pursuit of
respondent’s car by applying his push bumper
to the rear of the vehicle, causing it to leave the
road and crash. Respondent was rendered
quadriplegic. He filed suit under 42 U. S. C.
§1983 alleging, inter alia, the use of excessive
force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under
the Fourth Amendment . The District Court
denied Scott’s summary judgment motion,
which was based on qualified immunity. The
Eleventh Circuit affirmed on interlocutory
appeal, concluding, inter alia, that Scott’s
actions could constitute “deadly force” under
Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1 ; that the use
of such force in this context would violate
respondent’s constitutional right to be free
from excessive force during a seizure; and that
a reasonable jury could so find.

Held: Because the car chase respondent
initiated posed a substantial and immediate risk
of serious physical injury to others, Scott’s
attempt to terminate the chase by forcing
respondent off the road was reasonable, and
Scott is entitled to summary judgment. Pp.
3–13.

(a) Qualified immunity requires resolution of a
“threshold question: Taken in the light most
favorable to the party asserting the injury, do
the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct
violated a constitutional right?” Saucier v. Katz,
533 U. S. 194 . Pp. 3–4.

(b) The record in this case includes a videotape
capturing the events in question. Where, as
here, the record blatantly contradicts the
plaintiff’s version of events so that no
reasonable jury could believe it, a court should
not adopt that version of the facts for
purposes of ruling on a summary judgment
motion.
Pp. 5–8.

(c) Viewing the facts in the light depicted by the
videotape, it is clear that Deputy Scott did not
violate the Fourth Amendment . Pp. 8–13.

(i) Garner did not establish a magical on/off
switch that triggers rigid preconditions
whenever an officer’s actions constitute “deadly
force.” The Court there simply applied the
Fourth Amendment ’s “reasonableness” test to
the use of a particular type of force in a
particular situation. That case has scant
applicability to this one, which has vastly
different facts. Whether or not Scott’s actions
constituted “deadly force,” what matters is
whether those actions were reasonable. Pp.
8–10.

(ii) In determining a seizure’s reasonableness,
the Court balances the nature and quality of
the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth
Amendment interests against the importance of
the governmental interests allegedly justifying
the intrusion. United States v. Place, 462 U. S.
696 . In weighing the high likelihood of serious
injury or death to respondent that Scott’s
actions posed against the actual and imminent
threat that respondent posed to the lives of
others, the Court takes account of the number
of lives at risk and the relative culpability of the
parties involved. Respondent intentionally
placed himself and the public in danger by
unlawfully engaging in reckless, high-speed
flight; those who might have been harmed had
Scott not forced respondent off the road were
entirely innocent. The Court concludes that it
was reasonable for Scott to take the action he
did. It rejects respondent’s argument that
safety could have been assured if the police
simply ceased their pursuit. The Court rules
that a police officer’s attempt to terminate a
dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens
the lives of innocent bystanders does not
violate the Fourth Amendment , even when it
places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious
injury or death. Pp. 10–13.

433 F. 3d 807, reversed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in
which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Souter,
Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ.,
joined. Ginsburg, J., and Breyer, J., filed
concurring opinions. Stevens, J., filed a
dissenting opinion.
While police dodged the bullet on this one, don't
think for a moment that your responsibilities
involving vehicle pursuits have been lessened in any
way.  Any time you initiate or participate in a high
speed pursuit of a suspect vehicle, and the pursuit
ends with death or serious injury -- to anyone --
your conduct will be exhaustively scrutinized.

Here's the rub.  Opponents of police vehicle
pursuits want the total elimination of police pursuit
of speeding vehicles.  The reasoning is simple...if
cops don't chase, the suspects will slow down, and
they won't kill anybody.  Of course, if you've just
been carjacked, and you're locked in the trunk of
your car, you may want the cops to keep chasing
you.  The point here is simple...no one can predict
what will or will not happen.

You'll find out pretty quickly what your police
department's policy is on chasing vehicles.  Every
department will have some kind of written directive
regarding vehicle pursuits, but those directives
won't be much help to you since the reason for
initiating a pursuit will be the determining factor.  
I'm still trying to figure out the difference between a
speeding 16 year old car thief and a speeding 35
year old bank robber killing someone.

When it comes to vehicle pursuits, criticism of your
actions can occur no matter what you do. Some
time ago, I was watching a Baltimore police chase
which happened to occur during the six o'clock
television news.  Baltimore County Police chased a
speeding vehicle into Baltimore City.  While the city
police helicopter responded, no other Baltimore City
Police units participated in the chase.  Shortly
thereafter, Baltimore County broke off their pursuit,
and the city police helicopter departed.

Now...the conventional wisdom dictated that the
suspect would cease his speeding and reckless
driving.  As the news helicopter continued to follow
the suspect, the conventional wisdom failed to
apply.  Earlier, the news anchor people were
discussing the possibility that the police might cease
the pursuit.  As the suspect continued to speed
through intersections and cutting off motorists, the
anchor wisdom fest changed to, "Where are the
police?  This guy is dangerous."  Not long after the
anchorman's prophetic observation, the suspect did
crash into two other cars.  Fortunately, no one was
seriously injured.
Reasonableness.  When you become a police officer,
think about that word all the time, and apply it to
everything you do all of the time.

There are many people, including judges, who see
just about any application of force by a police officer
as excessive force.  When an application of force is
applied under dangerous circumstances for a
reasonable purpose, but the outcome of the
application results in death or serious injury, the
original reasonableness for the application of force
is lost on a lot of people.

While Scott v Harris is cloaked in the issue of
excessive force, it's really all about police officers
engaging in high speed vehicle pursuits.  It just
happened that in Scott v Harris the police officer
took overt action to end the pursuit by bumping
the suspect's car with his vehicle's push bar.  
Ergo...the issue of excessive force.

The Supremes, in an 8 to 1 majority found for the
officer, and they placed responsibility for the tragic
outcome squarely where it belonged...on the man
who began it all.  Even with such a lopsided majority
opinion based on videotaped evidence, a district and
appellate court didn't see it the same way.

As you begin your police career, don't make the
mistake of believing this decision has settled the
debates over police vehicle pursuits.  You'll learn
that the interpretation of law, as well as its
application, is about the most fluid thing you'll ever
encounter.

The Supreme Court came to a most proper and
reasonable conclusion in Scott v Harris.  Had the
Justices possessed the same mindset as the judges
in the lower courts, they would have redefined the
nation's streets and highways as raceways.  They
would have subjected every police officer, who
dared use any force to stop a vehicle, to being a
defendant in front of a jury.
United States Supreme Court
Scott v. Harris (05-1631)
Police allowed to force fleeing high-speed vehicle
off the road
Decided April 30, 2007
While the Supreme Court settled Scott v Harris with
a conclusion which is painfully obvious.  It's a little
scary to realize that two lower courts would have
"reasonable juries" decide every use of force to stop
a speeding vehicle.  Had the Supreme Court agreed
with the lower courts, it wouldn't be long before the
mere activation of your emergency lights would be
considered a use of force.  If activating your lights
to signal a driver to stop causes that driver to
speed off and kill himself or another innocent
motorist or pedestrian, you could find yourself
being judged by a jury.

Look...here's what you've got to understand right
from the beginning.  Chasing cars is really...really
dangerous business.  Forget about Scott v Harris,
and consider only the dangers to yourself and other
innocent people.  My advice to you is to not
continue any high speed pursuit; unless, you have a
really...really good reason to do so.  Going back to
my example of the carjacking...if I know you're
locked inside the trunk of your speeding car, I'm
going to continue to chase your car, because I
know that, statistically, your chances of coming out
of that trunk alive are not good; unless, I rescue
you.

In most cases, you'll have people fleeing from you,
before you have any idea of why they're trying to
get away from you.  The type of police department
you join is going to have a lot to do with reasons to
chase a vehicle.  For instance, a state police or
highway patrol agency responsible for patrol of
highways and interstates will likely have a much
more liberal pursuit policy than an agency which
patrols a densely populated urban area.  The level
of training you receive in pursuit and intervention
techniques will also give you a good indication of
your department's level of commitment to vehicle
pursuits.

Eight of nine Supreme Court Justices clearly
understand what you will understand when you
become a police officer.  It's a dangerous world, and
police officers cannot be deprived of their ability to
protect society even if the bad guys get hurt in the
process.  However, when you chase a vehicle, you
must keep the protection of innocent people
foremost in your mind and ensure that your actions
do not place the safety of innocents in jeopardy.  
Hey...there's nothing easy about it.
"As you begin your police career, don't make
the mistake of believing this decision has
settled the debates over police vehicle
pursuits." ~ Barry M. Baker
Scott versus
Harris
Copyright © 2018  Barry M. Baker  
CareerPoliceOfficer.com
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