550 U.S. 372 (2007), 05-1631, Scott v. Harris

Docket Nº:05-1631.
Citation:550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686
Opinion Judge:SCALIA, J., ROBERTS, C.J., and KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ.
Party Name:Timothy SCOTT, Petitioner, v. Victor HARRIS.
Case Date:April 30, 2007
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 372

550 U.S. 372 (2007)

127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686

Timothy SCOTT, Petitioner,

v.

Victor HARRIS.

No. 05-1631.

United States Supreme Court

April 30, 2007

Argued Feb. 26, 2007.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

[127 S.Ct. 1770] [127 S.Ct. 1771] 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 a 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, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 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. 377-386.

(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, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272. Pp. 377-378.

(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. 378-381.

(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 [127 S.Ct. 1772] those actions were reasonable. Pp. 381-383.

Page 373

(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, 703, 103 S.Ct. 2637, 77 L.Ed.2d 110. 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. 388-386

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., post, p. 386, and BREYER, J., post, p. 387, filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 389.

COUNSEL

Philip W. Savrin argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Sun S, Choy and Orin S. Kerr. Deputy Solicitor General Garre argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General Keisler, Jonathan L. Marcus, and Barbara L. Herwig. Craig T. Jones argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Andrew C. Clarke[*] Page 374

OPINION

Scalia, Justice.

We consider whether a law enforcement official can, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, attempt to stop a fleeing motorist from continuing his public-endangering flight by ramming the motorist's car from behind. Put another way: Can an officer take actions that place a fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death in order to stop the motorist's flight from endangering the lives of innocent bystanders?

I

In March 2001, a Georgia county deputy clocked respondent's vehicle traveling at 73 miles per hour on a road with a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. The deputy activated his blue flashing lights indicating that respondent should pull over. Instead, respondent sped away, initiating a chase down what

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is in most portions a two-lane road, at speeds exceeding 85 miles per hour. The deputy radioed his dispatch to [127 S.Ct. 1773] report that he was pursuing a fleeing vehicle, and broadcast its license plate number. Petitioner, Deputy Timothy Scott, heard the radio communication and joined the pursuit along with other officers. In the midst of the chase, respondent pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center and was nearly boxed in by the various police vehicles. Respondent evaded the trap by making a sharp turn, colliding with Scott's police car, exiting the parking lot, and speeding off once again down a two-lane highway.

Following respondent's shopping center maneuvering, which resulted in slight damage to Scott's police car, Scott took over as the lead pursuit vehicle. Six minutes and nearly 10 miles after the chase had begun, Scott decided to attempt to terminate the episode by employing a "Precision Intervention Technique ('PIT') maneuver, which causes the fleeing vehicle to spin to a stop." Brief for Petitioner 4. Having radioed his supervisor for permission, Scott was told to " '[g]o ahead and take him out.' " Harris v. Coweta County, 433 F. 3d 807, 811 (C.A.11 2005). Instead, Scott applied his push bumper to the rear of respondent's vehicle. 1 As a result, respondent lost control of his vehicle, which left the roadway, ran down an embankment, overturned, and crashed. Respondent was badly injured and was rendered a quadriplegic.

Respondent filed suit against Deputy Scott and others under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, inter alia, a violation of his federal constitutional rights, viz. use

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of excessive force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In response, Scott filed a motion for summary judgment based on an assertion of qualified immunity. The District Court denied the motion, finding that "there are material issues of fact on which the issue of qualified immunity turns which present sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury." Harris v. Coweta County, No. 3:01-CV-148-WBH, 2003 WL 25419527 (N.D.Ga. Sept. 23, 2003), App. to Pet. for Cert. 41a-42a. On interlocutory appeal, 2 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision to allow respondent's Fourth Amendment claim against Scott to proceed to trial. 3 Taking respondent's view of the facts as given, the Court of Appeals concluded that Scott's actions could constitute "deadly force" under Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985), and that the use of such force in this context "would violate [respondent's] constitutional right to be free from excessive force during a seizure. [127 S.Ct. 1774] Accordingly, a reasonable jury could find that Scott violated [respondent's] Fourth Amendment rights." 433 F. 3d, at 816. The Court of Appeals further concluded that "the law as it existed [at the time of the incident], was sufficiently clear to give reasonable law enforcement officers 'fair notice' that ramming a vehicle under these circumstances was unlawful." Id., at 817. The Court of Appeals thus concluded that Scott was not entitled to qualified immunity. We granted certiorari, 549 U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 468, 166 L.Ed.2d 333 (2006), and now reverse.

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II

In resolving questions of qualified immunity, courts are required to resolve 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? This must be the initial inquiry." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001). If, and only if, the court finds a violation of a constitutional right, "the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established . . . in light of the specific context of the case." Ibid. Although this ordering contradicts "[o]ur policy of avoiding unnecessary adjudication of constitutional issues," United States v. Treasury Employees, 513 U.S. 454, 478, 115 S.Ct. 1003, 130 L.Ed.2d 964 (1995) (citing Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346-347, 56 S.Ct. 466, 80 L.Ed. 688 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring)), we have...

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