The Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department (FCPD) conducts Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT) training at its driving-training track. Before an FCPD officer can use the PIT maneuver on the streets, the officer must successfully complete the department’s intense training. Photo courtesy FCPD
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Recently, the United States Supreme Court delivered an opinion quite favorable to the law enforcement community regarding a pursuit of a fleeing motorist who poses a danger to innocent bystanders through reckless driving alone. In Scott v. Harris, decided on April 30, the Court addressed whether officers can take actions that place a fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death in an attempt to stop the motorist s flight from endangering the lives of innocent motorists and pedestrians. In short, the Court stated that officers could, and that their actions were not in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Victor Harris was clocked on radar doing 73 mph in a 55 mph speed zone. A county deputy activated his flashing lights in an attempt to conduct a traffic stop on Harris vehicle. However, instead of pulling over, Harris sped off in excess of 85 mph down a two-lane road. The deputy notified his dispatcher he was in pursuit of a vehicle, and radioed the license plate number to the dispatcher. After hearing the broadcast, Deputy Timothy Scott joined in the pursuit. The pursuit eventually turned into a parking lot of a shopping center where the deputies made an attempt to box-in Harris vehicle. Harris was able to escape the maneuver by making a sharp turn, striking Scott s vehicle, turning out of the parking lot and taking off down another two-lane road. As the events unfolded, Scott ended up taking over as the lead vehicle.
After 10 miles into the pursuit (about six minutes later), Scott decided to use the PIT maneuver in an attempt to stop Harris vehicle and terminate the pursuit. Scott sought the permission of his supervisor, who authorized Scott to go ahead and take him out. However, Scott found himself in a position that did not allow him to safely execute the PIT maneuver, and he decided to apply his push bumper to the rear of Harris vehicle. Scott s actions, unfortunately, caused Harris to lose control of his vehicle, travel off the road, overturn and crash. The crash rendered Harris a quadriplegic.
Harris filed a federal civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging that Scott s actions constituted excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. Scott filed a motion for summary judgment and in doing so, asserted he had qualified immunity from liability. The district court denied Scott s motion, stating there was a material issue of fact (a disagreement of the facts) that required the case to go before a jury. Scott appealed the district court s ruling, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court s decision.
The appellate court found that Scott s actions could be considered deadly force under Tennessee v. Garner and that the use of force in this case would violate Harris constitutional right to be free from excessive force during a seizure. The appellate court stated that as such, a reasonable jury could find that Scott violated Harris Fourth Amendment rights. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals found that for purposes of qualified immunity, the law was sufficiently clear at the time of the incident that police officers were on fair notice that ramming a vehicle under these circumstances was unlawful.
Not so, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision.
Because the case centered on whether Scott was entitled to qualified immunity, the question that needed to be resolved first was whether Scott s actions violated the Fourth Amendment. In doing so, a court is required to look at the relevant facts. As is typical in cases involving claims of police misconduct, Harris version of the events differed dramatically from Scott s. And, when determining the relevant facts on a motion for summary judgment, courts must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Usually, it means taking the plaintiff s version of the events as opposed to the police officer s version.
Interestingly, the court record contained the videotape of the police pursuit, and the videotape clearly contradicted Harris version of the events that was adopted by the Court of Appeals. The videotape demonstrated that Harris was racing down narrow, two-lane roads at speeds that are shockingly fast. The Court went on to observe that Harris swerve[d] around more than a dozen other cars, cross[ed] the double-yellow line, and force[d] cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit. The Court saw Harris run multiple red lights and travel for considerable periods of time in the occasional center left-turn-only lane, chased by numerous police cars forced to engage in the same hazardous maneuvers just to keep up. In sum, the Court found that [f]ar from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury.
No doubt, the videotape was critical in the Court s decision. In fact, the case rose and fell on that videotape. Imagine if the pursuit had not been captured on video and/or not submitted as part of the record. The Court would have had no other choice but to take Harris version of the events as the Court of Appeals did. And if that were the case, there was a good chance the truth would not have prevailed had the case proceeded to trial.
The Court stated that when opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment. The Court found that Harris version of the events was so utterly discredited by videotape that no reasonable jury could have believed him. Thankfully, the pursuit was captured on video, and the truth was spoken.
No Fourth Amendment Violation
After adopting the version of the events as depicted in the videotape, the Supreme Court had to determine whether Scott s actions violated the Fourth Amendment. Scott did not contest that his decision to terminate the pursuit by ramming his bumper into Harris car constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Both sides also conceded that Harris claim of excessive force was to be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment s objective reasonableness test as enunciated in Graham v. Connor.
To determine whether Scott s actions were reasonable, the Court had to consider the risk of injury that Scott s actions posed to Harris in light of the threat to the public Scott was trying to eliminate. The Court found Harris posed a threat to the lives of pedestrians, motorists and the officers involved in the chase, and also found Scott s actions posed a high likelihood of serious injury or death to Harris. However, to determine whether Scott s actions were reasonable it would take into consideration not only the number of lives at risk, but also the relative culpability of the involved parties.
In this case, the Court found it was Harris who initially placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight that ultimately produced the choice between two evils that Scott confronted, and by refusing to heed Scott s lights and sirens. On the other hand, those who might have been injured had Scott not forced Harris off the road were entirely innocent. As such, the Court held it was reasonable for Scott to ram Harris vehicle.
In response, Harris argued the innocent public could have been protected, and the tragic accident avoided, had the police simply stopped pursuing. The Court rejected that argument, stating, We think the police need not have taken that chance and hoped for the best. Whereas Scott s action ramming [Harris] off the road was certain to eliminate the risk that [Harris] posed to the public; ceasing pursuit was not.
According to the Court, there would be no way to convey with any certainty to Harris that the pursuit was off and that he was free to go. Further, the Court was loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people s lives in danger. The Court stressed that the Constitution assuredly does not impose this invitation to impunity-earned-by-recklessness. Instead, the Court provided a more sensible rule: 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.
The Bottom Line
The Court s decision does not mean law enforcement officers are immune from liability every time the motorist they are pursuing is injured as a result of a PIT maneuver or some other contact with the motorist s vehicle. However, if police officers can demonstrate they were attempting to terminate a high-speed pursuit that threatened the lives of innocent pedestrians and motorists when they made the decision to make physical contact with the offending vehicle, the likelihood of officers prevailing in the defense of a civil rights lawsuit is greatly increased.
How do officers know what the threshold is? Watch the video and make it a part of your training. Find it on the Supreme Court s Web site at www.supremecourt us.gov/opinions/06slipopinion.html.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. 127 S.Ct. 1769 (2007).
2. The facts are taken from the opinion of the Supreme Court and underlying courts.
3. Precision Intervention Technique.
4. Harris v. Coweta County, 433 F.3d 807 (11th Cir. 2005).
5. 471 U.S. 1 (1985).
6. 127 S.Ct. at 1775.
9. 127 S.Ct. at 1175-76.
10. 127 S.Ct. at 1776.
12. 490 U.S. 386 (1989).
13. 127 S.Ct. at 1778.
14. 127 S.Ct. at 1778-79.
15. 127 S.Ct. at 1779.