Supreme Court Summary: Scott v. Harris

by D. Brian Cummings
Operations Manager - Planning Division
Richmond Police Department


Ruling from the Bench

The U.S. Supreme Court (8-1 vote) held that a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed 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 bodily injury or death.

The Facts

A Georgia county deputy (unnamed) clocked Harris’ (“the suspect”) vehicle traveling 73 mph in a 55 mph zone. The deputy activated his blue lights but the suspect continued driving. A police pursuit initiated that lasted for more than six minutes and reached speeds in excess of 85 mph. A second deputy, Deputy Scott, joined the pursuit along with other officers. The suspect, at one point during the pursuit, was nearly boxed in by police vehicles in a parking lot but escaped by colliding with Scott’s police car and exiting the parking lot, continuing the pursuit.

Deputy Scott took over as the lead pursuit vehicle. More than six minutes and nearly 10 miles after the chase had begun; Scott secured permission from his supervisor to terminate the pursuit using a Precision Intervention Technique or PIT maneuver. Instead, however, Scott terminated the high speed pursuit by applying his push bumper to the rear of the suspect’s vehicle, causing it to leave the road and crash. The suspect was rendered a quadriplegic.

The suspect filed a § 1983 lawsuit against Deputy Scott and others. In response, Deputy Scott filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Scott’s motion and qualified immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and held that since the car chase, initiated by the suspect, posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others, Deputy Scott’s attempt to terminate the chase by forcing respondent off the road was reasonable.

Highlights of the Majority Opinion

• The issue was whether, for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, it is reasonable for a police officer to attempt to stop a fleeing motorist from continuing his “public endangering” flight by ramming the motorist’s car from behind.

• The Supreme Court watched the videotape taken from one of the pursuit vehicles’ in-car cameras and concluded that “the videotape quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by respondent.” The Court concluded that the suspect raced “shockingly fast” down narrow, two-lane roads at night, swerved around more than a dozen other cars, crossed the double-yellow line, and forced cars in both directions off to the shoulder. It also concluded that he ran multiple red lights and traveled, numerous times, in left-turn only lanes in the middle of the road.  Scott’s motion for summary judgment had been denied by the trial court.  In reviewing a trial court’s decisions on a motion for summary judgment, appellate courts usually assume that the allegations of the party who won in the trial court are true.  In this case, that meant that the appellate courts assumed that the suspect’s allegations were true.  However, the Supreme Court indicated that the suspect’s allegations are so at odds with what the videotape shows that the appellate courts should not have assumed that the suspect’s allegations were true.

• The Supreme Court said that it was clear that Deputy Scott did not violate the Fourth Amendment. While the use of the push bumper was definitely a Fourth Amendment seizure, it was reasonable under the circumstances. The Court, in making its determination, balanced the nature and quality of the intrusion on Harris’ Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of governmental interests.  The Court concluded that the suspect’s intentional behavior posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of pedestrians, to other motorists, and officers who were all entirely innocent.

• The suspect argued that the accident rendering him a quadriplegic could have been avoided if the officers had stopped their pursuit. In response, the Court stated that terminating the pursuit would not have guaranteed that the suspect would have stopped his reckless driving and the risk posed by his driving. The Court also said that it (the Court) would NOT establish a legal rule requiring police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive in such a reckless manner as to endanger the lives of others.

The Bottom Line

The Court established a rule of law that “a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed 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 bodily injury or death.”

For an interesting lengthier analysis of Scott v. Harris by a University of Virginia law student, see
Disclaimer:  The content of the Virginia Police Legal Bulletin does not constitute legal advice, nor does it reflect the opinions or views of the Virginia Police Legal Advisors Committee.