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Facts and Case Summary: Scott v. Harris

Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. ___ (2007)
Law enforcement did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against an unreasonable seizure during a high-speed chase that ended with a car crash that left the 19-year-old driver paralyzed.

FACTS

One night in March 2001, a Georgia police officer clocked 19-year-old Victor Harris driving 73 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone. When the officer signaled for Harris to pull over, Harris sped up instead. The officer gave chase, and radioed for assistance. In the midst of the chase the officers nearly cornered Harris in a parking lot, but he got away after getting into a minor scrape with Deputy Timothy Scott's police car before speeding off again. Scott took over as the lead pursuit vehicle, following Harris down a mostly two-lane highway at more than 85 m.p.h. In order to bring the high-speed chase to an end, Scott sped up and hit the bumper of Harris' car, which caused that vehicle to leave the road and crash. Harris sustained injuries rendering him a quadriplegic. Harris sued Scott under 42 U.S.C. §1983, which grants a cause of action for deprivation of civil rights.

PROCEDURE

This case is about the government "seizure" carried out by Scott, and whether that seizure violated Harris' Fourth Amendment right to be free of excessive force during a seizure. The parties agreed that a seizure occurred when Scott rammed Harris' bumper. But Harris alleged that Scott used excessive force to end the chase, and that therefore the seizure was unreasonable and unconstitutional. Scott contended that given the circumstances his actions were reasonable. The U.S. District Court rejected Harris' arguments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with them, and Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

ISSUE

Did Deputy Scott's actions constitute an unreasonable seizure, thus violating Harris' Fourth Amendment right?

RULING

No.

REASONING

The Court held that because Harris started the high-speed car chase, creating a dangerous situation that threatened the lives of innocent bystanders, it was reasonable for Scott to try to stop it even when it put Harris in danger of serious injury. To reach that conclusion, the court first had to decide the factual issue of whether Harris' behavior endangered human life.

Harris argued that his driving was controlled and nonthreatening and that his path was clear of other traffic and pedestrians. His arguments were successful in the Court of Appeals, but after viewing the police videotape of the chase all but one of the Supreme Court Justices disagreed with the appellate court. The Supreme Court concluded that Harris' driving did pose an immediate threat to the lives of others.

On the question of whether the force used was "reasonable," Harris argued that to be reasonable Scott's attempt to stop the chase using force must meet standards set forth in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1. There, a police officer shot an unimposing, unarmed burglary suspect in the back of the head as the suspect fled. The Garner court held that the officer's use of deadly force was not reasonable because (1) the suspect did not pose an immediate danger to others, (2) the deadly force was not necessary to prevent the suspect's escape, and (3) the officer gave no warning.

The Scott majority rejected Harris' Garner arguments. They held (1) that Garner did not establish any across-the-board test for determining the reasonableness of Fourth Amendment seizures, and (2) that it was distinguishable on the facts. In both Garner and the case before it, the Court applied the standard Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" test to the circumstances of that case. Was it objectively reasonable for Scott to do what he did?

Looking to the circumstances of the car chase, the Court held that it was reasonable for Scott to take the actions he did. Moreover, the majority noted, if the Court were to rule otherwise -- in effect, requiring police to let speeding suspects get away -- it would give criminals an incentive to drive recklessly just so the police would have to break off pursuit.

CONCURRENCES

Justice Ginsberg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg concurred with the majority, but was concerned that the majority established a bright-line rule that the police could force a car off of the road in order to end a high-speed chase without fear of violating the Fourth Amendment. Justice Ginsberg felt that different circumstances may have had an impact on the outcome of the case, e.g., Deputy Scott's actions might not have been permissible if bystanders were present.

Justice Breyer

Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with Justice Ginsberg's concurrence, and urged readers of the opinion to see the video of the chase because the outcome of this case is very fact-dependent. Justice Breyer noted that the Court perhaps did not have to decide the issue on constitutional grounds, but may have been able to decide it based upon a judicial concept that affords limited immunity from suit to police officers for suits based on their official conduct.

DISSENTS

Justice Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that there was no difference between the facts of this case and the facts of Garner. Specifically, he said that since the underlying crime (speeding) was nonviolent, and there was no evidence that Harris would be of harm to others, Deputy Scott committed an "unreasonable seizure" when he rammed Harris' car. Justice Stevens also noted that the police knew Harris' license plate number, so they could have tracked him down later without the need for the chase. Furthermore, Justice Stevens argued that, had the police not given chase in the first place, Harris might not have continued with his speeding.