Scott v. Harris - Training - LawOfficer.com

Scott v. Harris

U.S. Supreme Court backs police in pursuit case

 


 

Laura L. Scarry | From the July 2007 Issue Friday, June 29, 2007

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.

The Facts

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.

The Opinion

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.




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Laura L. ScarryLaura L. Scarry, Law Officer's Legal Eagle columnist, is a partner in the law firm of DeAno & Scarry, with offices located in Wheaton and Chicago, Ill.

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