Brower v. County of Inyo, 87-248

Decision Date21 March 1989
Docket NumberNo. 87-248,87-248
Citation489 U.S. 593,109 S.Ct. 1378,103 L.Ed.2d 628
PartiesGeorgia BROWER, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of William James Caldwell (Brower), Deceased, et al., Petitioners v. COUNTY OF INYO et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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 not unreasonable 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 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 (CA9 1987), 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 Robert Gene Gilmore, Fresno, Cal., for petitioners.

Philip W. McDowell, Independence, Cal., for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

On the night of ctober 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, 108 S.Ct. 2869, 101 L.Ed.2d 904 (1988), to resolve a conflict between that decision and the contrary hold- ing 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, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 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, 105 S.Ct., at 1699; id., at 25, 105 S.Ct., at 1708 (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, 105 S.Ct., at 1699. 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 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. Violation of the Fourth Amendment requires an intentional acquisi ion 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, 91 S.Ct. 1106, 1110-1111, 28 L.Ed.2d 484 (1971); cf. Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79, 85-89, 107 S.Ct. 1013, 1017-1020, 94 L.Ed.2d 72 (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, 6 S.Ct. 524, 528-529, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886); T. Cooley, Constitutional Limitations *301-*302, did not involve unintended consequences of government action. Nor did the general warrants issued by Lord Halifax in the 1760's, which produced "the first and only major litigation in the English courts in the field of search and seizure," T. Taylor, Two Studies in Constitutional Interpretation 26 (1969), including the case we have described as a "monument of English freedom" "undoubtedly familiar" to "every American statesman" at the time the Constitution was adopted, and considered to be "the true and ultimate expression of constitutional law," Boyd, supra, at 626, 6 S.Ct., at 530 (discussing Entick v. Carrington, 19 How.St.Tr. 1029, 95 Eng.Rep. 807 (K.B. 1765)). In sum, the Fourth Amendment addresses "misuse of power," Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28, 33, 47 S.Ct. 248, 250, 71 L.Ed. 520 (1927), not the accidental effects of otherwise lawful government conduct.

Thus, if a parked and unoccupied police car slips its brake and pins a passerby against a wall, it is likely that a tort has occurred, but not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the situation would not change if the passerby happened, by lucky chance, to be a serial murderer for whom there was an outstanding arrest warrant—even if, at the time he was thus pinned, he was in the process of running away from two pursuing constables. It is clear, in other words, that a Fourth Amendment seizure does not occur whenever there is a governmentally caused termination of an individual's freedom of movement (the innocent passerby), nor even whenever there is a governmentally caused and governmentally desired termination of an individual's freedom of movement (the fleeing felon), but only when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied. That is the reason there was no seizure in the hypothetical situation that concerned the Court of Appeals. The pursuing police car sought to stop the suspect only by the show of authority represented by flashing lights and continuing pursuit; and though he was in fact stopped, he was stopped by a different means—his loss of control of his vehicle and the subsequent crash. If, instead of that, the police cruiser had pulled alongside the fleeing car and sideswiped it, producing the crash, then the termination of the suspect's freedom of movement would have been a seizure.

This analysis is reflected by our decision in Hester v. United States, 265 U.S. 57, 44 S.Ct. 445, 68 L.Ed. 898 (1924), where an armed revenue agent had pursued the defendant and his accomplice after seeing them obtain containers thought to be filled with "moonshine whisky." During their flight they dropped the containers, which the agent recovered. The defendant sought to suppress testimony concerning the containers' contents as the product of an unlawful seizure. Justice Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Court, concluded: "The defendan...

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