Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation523 U.S. 833
Docket Number96-1337.
Decision Date26 May 1998

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Terence J. Cassidy argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners.

Paul J. Hedlund argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Michael L. Baum.*

Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, C. J., filed a concurring opinion, p. 855. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which O'Connor, J.,joined, p. 856. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion, p. 858. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, p. 859. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined, p. 860.

Justice Souter, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issuein this case is whether a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender. We answer no, and hold that in such circumstances only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest will satisfy the element of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for a due process violation.


On May 22, 1990, at approximately 8:30 p.m., petitioner James Everett Smith, a Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, along with another officer, Murray Stapp, responded to a call to break up a fight. Upon returning to his patrol car, Stapp saw a motorcycle approaching at high speed. It was operated by 18-year-old Brian Willard and carried Philip Lewis, respondents' 16-year-old decedent, as a passenger. Neither boy had anything to do with the fight that prompted the call to the police.

Stapp turned on his overhead rotating lights, yelled to the boys to stop, and pulled his patrol car closer to Smith's, attempting to pen the motorcycle in. Instead of pulling over in response to Stapp's warning lights and commands, Willardslowly maneuvered the motorcycle between the two police cars and sped off. Smith immediately switched on his own emergency lights and siren, made a quick turn, and began pursuit at high speed. For 75 seconds over a course of 1.3 miles in a residential neighborhood, the motorcycle wove in and out of oncoming traffic, forcing two cars and a bicycle to swerve off the road. The motorcycle and patrol car reached speeds up to 100 miles an hour, with Smith following at a distance as short as 100 feet; at that speed, his car would have required 650 feet to stop.

The chase ended after the motorcycle tipped over as Willard tried a sharp left turn. By the time Smith slammed on his brakes, Willard was out of the way, but Lewis was not. The patrol car skidded into him at 40 miles an hour, propelling him some 70 feet down the road and inflicting massive injuries. Lewis was pronounced dead at the scene.

Respondents, Philip Lewis's parents and the representatives of his estate, brought this action under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U. S. C. § 1983, against petitioners Sacramento County, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, and Deputy Smith, alleging a deprivation of Philip Lewis's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to life.1 The District Court granted summary judgment for Smith, reasoning that even if he violated the Constitution, he was entitled to qualified immunity, because respondents could point to no "state or federal opinion published before May, 1990, when the alleged misconduct took place, that supports[their] view that [the decedent had] a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right in the context of high speed police pursuits." App. to Pet. for Cert. 52.2

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that "the appropriate degree of fault to be applied to high-speed police pursuits is deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person's right to life and personal security," 98 F.3d 434, 441 (1996), and concluding that "the law regarding police liability for death or injury caused by an officer during the course of a high-speed chase was clearly established" at the time of Philip Lewis's death, id., at 445. Since Smith apparently disregarded the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department's General Order on police pursuits, the Ninth Circuit found a genuine issue of material fact that might be resolved by a finding that Smith's conduct amounted to deliberate indifference:

The General Order requires an officer to communicate his intention to pursue a vehicle to the sheriff's department dispatch center. But defendants concede that Smith did not contact the dispatch center. The General Order requires an officer to consider whether the seriousness of the offense warrants a chase at speeds in excess of the posted limit. But here, the only apparent 'offense' was the boys' refusal to stop when another officer told them to do so. The General Order requires an officer to consider whether the need for apprehension justifies the pursuit under existing conditions. Yet Smith apparently only 'needed' to apprehend the boys because they refused to stop. The General Order requires an officer to consider whether the pursuit presents unreasonable hazards to life and property. But taking the facts here in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, there existed an unreasonable hazard to Lewis's and Willard's lives. The General Order also directs an officer to discontinue a pursuit when the hazards of continuing outweigh the benefits of immediate apprehension. But here, there was no apparent danger involved in permitting the boys to escape. There certainly was risk of harm to others in continuing the pursuit. Id., at 442.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment in favor of Smith and remanded for trial.

We granted certiorari, 520 U.S. 1250 (1997), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits over the standard of culpability on the part of a law enforcement officer for violating substantive due process in a pursuit case. Compare 98 F. 3d, at 441 ("deliberate indifference" or "reckless disregard"),3 with Evans v. Avery, 100 F.3d 1033, 1038 (CA1 1996) ("shocks the conscience"), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1210 (1997); Williams v. Denver, 99 F.3d 1009, 1014-1015 (CA10 1996) (same); Fagan v. Vineland, 22 F.3d 1296, 1306-1307 (CA3 1994) (en banc) (same); Temkin v. Frederick County Commissioners, 945 F.2d 716,720 (CA4 1991) (same), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1095 (1992); and Checki v. Webb, 785 F.2d 534, 538 (CA5 1986) (same). We now reverse.


Our prior cases have held the provision that "[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U. S. Const., Amdt. 14, § 1, to "guarante[e] more than fair process," Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 719 (1997), and to cover a substantive sphere as well, "barring certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them," Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986); see also Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 125 (1990) (noting that substantive due process violations are actionable under § 1983). The allegation here that Lewis was deprived of his right to life in violation of substantive due process amounts to such a claim, that under the circumstances described earlier, Smith's actions in causing Lewis's death were an abuse of executive power so clearly unjustified by any legitimate objective of law enforcement as to be barred by the Fourteenth Amendment. Cf. Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 126 (1992) (noting that the Due Process Clause was intended to prevent government officials "' "from abusing [their] power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression"' ") (quoting DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 196 (1989), in turn quoting Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 348 (1986)).4

Leaving aside the question of qualified immunity, which formed the basis for the District Court's dismissal of their case,5 respondents face two principal objections to their claim. The first is that its subject is necessarily governed by a more definite provision of the Constitution (to the exclusion of any possible application of substantive due process); the second, that in any event the allegations are insufficient to state a substantive due process violation through executive abuse of power. Respondents can meet the first objection, but not the second.


Because we have "always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process," Collins v. Harker Heights, supra, at 125, we held in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), that "[w]here a particular Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against a particular sort of government behavior, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of substantive due process, must be the guide for analyzing these claims." Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 273 (1994) (plurality opinion of Rehnquist, C. J.) (quoting Graham v. Connor, supra, at 395) (internal quotation marks omitted). Given the rule in Graham, we were presented at oral argument with the threshold issue raised in several amicus briefs,6 whether facts involving a police chase aimed at apprehending suspects can ever support a due process claim. The argument runs that in chasing the motorcycle, Smith was attempting to make a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and, perhaps, even that he succeeded when Lewis was stopped by the fatal collision. Hence, any liability must turn on an application of the reasonableness standardgoverning searches and seizures, not the due process standard of liability for constitutionally arbitrary executive action. See Graham v. Connor, supra, at 395 ("[A]ll claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force— deadly or not—in the course of an...

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  • County of Sacramento v. Lewis
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
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11 books & journal articles
  • The Due Process Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amensments
    • United States
    • The Path of Constitutional Law Part IV: The Final Cause Of Constitutional Law Sub-Part Three: Civil War Amendments And Due Process Generally
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