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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 © 2016  Barry M. Baker  
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