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Supreme Court Decision Update - Scott v. Harris

chase.jpgThis may be the best Supreme Court decision ever because on the Supreme website, you don’t just find the written opinion, but a downloadable video (Real Player format) of a high-speed car chase. Who doesn’t love high-speed car chases? Nobody, that’s who.

So back in 2001, a local deputy busted a car for speeding. He tried to pull the driver over, and this turned into a high-speed chase, which Deputy Timothy Scott joined. The chase ended when Scott used his car to push the fleeing car off the road. The car crashed and the fleeing driver wound up a quadriplegic. He then filed a civil rights lawsuit, claiming that Scott had used excessive force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Scott tried to have the case thrown out on the basis of “qualified immunity,” but the District Court and Eleventh Circuit said that Scott’s actions might be considered “deadly force,” and that the use of deadly force in this particularly situation may have been a constitutional violation.

In an 8-1 decision, the Supremes reversed, finding that the driver initiated the chase and, as such, he had caused a serious risk to others which authorized Scott to use possibly deadly force to get the car chase off the road. This 8-1 majority opinion was written by the Scalia, and joined by everyone but Justice Stevens. Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, and there were also two concurring opinions from Justices Ginsburg and Justice Breyer.

As I mentioned, there is a video of the car chase. The Scalia says that this video quite clearly shows events which contradict the plaintiff’s version of how things went down (the plaintiff claims that there was no risk to others, that he didn’t run any cars off the road, etc.), and that no reasonable jury could believe his story. As such, the lower courts were wrong to adopt his version of facts in considering Scott’s summary judgment motion (as you may know, when a party moves for summary judgment, the court will generally accept the other side’s alleged facts as true for the purpose of resolving that motion). And in light of the facts as shown on the video, says the Scalia, it’s clear that there was no Constitutional violation. This is because the question is, regardless of whether or not Scott’s actions were “deadly force,” were they reasonable.

And the Scalia says this was a reasonable seizure in light of the high likelihood of injury to others (which justified the intrusion made by Scott ending the chase). And Scalia is not willing to make a rule requiring cops to stop their chases, as that rewards drivers who drive so recklessly that they create these dangerous high-speed situations:

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.

Justice Ginsburg filed a one-page concurrence, just to say that she doesn’t think the majority opinion articulates “a mechanical, per se rule.” So there may be a situation where an attempt to end a high-speed chase results in a Constitutional violation, she doesn’t think this was such a case. Justice Breyer, meanwhile, filed a concurring opinion for a couple of reasons. He agrees with Ginsburg’s point, and says so. He also suggests “that the interested reader take advantage” of the Court’s publication of the chase video “and watch it.” Right on, Breyer! Finally, Breyer notes that while some precedent was overturned by the majority, he thinks that “stare decisis concerns are at their weakest here” because there has been “little reliance” on those earlier cases.

Lastly, Justice Stevens filed a dissent because he thinks there not only should not be a hard-line “per se rule” (like Ginsburg and Breyer said), but he thinks that there is room for different interpretations of the video in this instance. He says the majority actually makes an “unprecedented departure from our well-settled standard of review of factual determinations made by a district court and affirmed by a court of appeals,” and he’s having none of it.

| Comments (1)


I realize that I have officially crossed into law nerd-dom, because I have been waiting for this opinion to come out like a kid at Barnes & Noble on the day of a Harry Potter release. This is a great day indeed for the Supe's.