489 U.S. 593 (1989), 87-248, Brower v. County of Inyo

Docket Nº:No. 87-248
Citation:489 U.S. 593, 109 S.Ct. 1378, 103 L.Ed.2d 628
Party Name:Brower v. County of Inyo
Case Date:March 21, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 593

489 U.S. 593 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1378, 103 L.Ed.2d 628



County of Inyo

No. 87-248

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 1989

Argued January 11, 1989




Petitioners' decedent (Brower) was killed when the stolen car he had been driving at high speeds to elude pursuing police crashed into a police roadblock. Petitioners brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Federal District Court, claiming, inter alia, that respondents, acting under color of law, violated Brower's Fourth Amendment rights by effecting an unreasonable seizure using excessive force. Specifically, the complaint alleges that respondents placed an 18-wheel truck completely across the highway in the path of Brower's flight, behind a curve, with a police cruiser's headlights aimed in such fashion as to blind Brower on his approach. It also alleges that the fatal collision was a "proximate result" of this police conduct. The District Court dismissed for failure to state a claim, concluding that the roadblock was reasonable under the circumstances, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that no "seizure" had occurred.


1. Consistent with the language, history, and judicial construction of the Fourth Amendment, a seizure occurs when governmental termination of a person's movement is effected through means intentionally applied. Because the complaint alleges that Brower was stopped by the instrumentality set in motion or put in place to stop him, it states a claim of Fourth Amendment "seizure." Pp. 595-599.

2. Petitioners can claim the right to recover for Brower's death because the [109 S.Ct. 1380] unreasonableness alleged consists precisely of setting up the roadblock in such a manner as to be likely to kill him. On remand, the Court of Appeals must determine whether the District Court erred in concluding that the roadblock was not "unreasonable." Pp. 599-600.

817 F.2d 540, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 600.

Page 594

SCALIA, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

On the night of October 23, 1984, William James Caldwell (Brower) was killed when the stolen car that he had been driving at high speeds for approximately 20 miles in an effort to elude pursuing police crashed into a police roadblock. His heirs, petitioners here, brought this action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming, inter alia, that respondents used "brutal, excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary physical force" in establishing the roadblock, and thus effected an unreasonable seizure of Brower, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Petitioners alleged that "under color of statutes, regulations, customs and usages," respondents (1) caused an 18-wheel tractor-trailer to be placed across both lanes of a two-lane highway in the path of Brower's flight, (2) "effectively concealed" this roadblock by placing it behind a curve and leaving it unilluminated, and (3) positioned a police car, with its headlights on, between Brower's oncoming vehicle and the truck, so that Brower would be "blinded" on his approach. App. 8-9. Petitioners further alleged that Brower's fatal collision with the truck was "a proximate result" of this official conduct. Id. at 9. The District Court granted respondents' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on the ground (insofar as the Fourth Amendment claim was concerned) that "establishing a roadblock [was] not unreasonable under the circumstances." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-21. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Fourth Amendment claim on the basis that no "seizure" had occurred. 817 F.2d 540, 545-546 (1987). We granted certiorari, 487 U.S. 1217 (1988), to resolve a conflict between that decision and the contrary holding

Page 595

of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Jamieson v. Shaw, 772 F.2d 1205 (1985).

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.

In Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), all Members of the Court agreed that a police officer's fatal shooting of a fleeing suspect constituted a Fourth Amendment "seizure." See id. at 7; id. at 27 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). We reasoned that "[w]henever an officer restrains the freedom of a person to walk away, he has seized that person." Id. at 7. While acknowledging Garner, the Court of Appeals here concluded that no "seizure" occurred when Brower collided with the police roadblock because, "[p]rior to his failure to stop voluntarily, his freedom of movement was never arrested or restrained," and because "[h]e had a number [109 S.Ct. 1381] of opportunities to stop his automobile prior to the impact." 817 F.2d at 546. Essentially the same thing, however, could have been said in Garner. Brower's independent decision to continue the chase can no more eliminate respondents' responsibility for the termination of his movement effected by the roadblock than Garner's independent decision to flee eliminated the Memphis police officer's responsibility for the termination of his movement effected by the bullet.

The Court of Appeals was impelled to its result by consideration of what it described as the "analogous situation" of a police chase in which the suspect unexpectedly loses control of his car and crashes. See Galas v. McKee, 801 F.2d 200, 202-203 (CA6 1986) (no seizure in such circumstances). We agree that no unconstitutional seizure occurs there, but not for a reason that has any application to the present case.

Page 596

Violation of the Fourth Amendment requires an intentional acquisition of physical control. A seizure occurs even when an unintended person or thing is the object of the detention or taking, see Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 802-805 (1971); cf. Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79, 85-89 (1987), but the detention or taking itself must be willful. This is implicit in the word "seizure," which can hardly be applied to an unknowing act. The writs of assistance that were the principal grievance against which the Fourth Amendment was directed, see Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 624-625 (1886); T. Cooley, Constitutional Limitations *301-*302, did not involve...

To continue reading