Scott v. Harris

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In Scott v. Harris (2007),[1] the U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of a police officer who terminated a high speed chase by bumping into the suspect's car, causing him to lose control and crash. The crash rendered him a quadriplegic. The Court held that the police could not be sued for taking reasonable means to stop someone who was leading the police on a high-speed chase. The Court, after reviewing a video tape of the chase and crash, rejected that plaintiff's argument that his Fourth Amendment rights against an unreasonable search and seizure.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for the 8-1 Court, with Justice John Paul Stevens the lone dissent.

The decision relied heavily on the videotape of the event, which sparked a disagreement between the majority and the dissent in interpreting it. Justice Scalia wrote for the Court:

The videotape tells quite a different story. There we see respondent's vehicle racing down narrow, two-lane roads in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast. We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, cross the double-yellow line, and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit. We see it 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. Far 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.

Id. at 379-80 (footnote omitted).

In dissent, Justice Stevens wrote:

I can only conclude that my colleagues were unduly frightened by two or three images on the tape that looked like bursts of lightning or explosions, but were in fact merely the headlights of vehicles zooming by in the opposite lane. Had they learned to drive when most high-speed driving took place on two-lane roads rather than on superhighways -- when split-second judgments about the risk of passing a slow poke in the face of oncoming traffic were routine -- they might well have reacted to the videotape more dispassionately.

Id. at 390 n.1 (Stevens, J., dissenting).

Justice Breyer's Concurrence

In an increasingly cited concurrence, Justice Stephen Breyer urged the reversal of a precedent that requires lower courts to address fact-based constitutional issues before deciding the applicability of qualified immunity for police officers:

[T]he video makes clear the highly fact-dependent nature of this constitutional determination. And that fact-dependency supports the argument that we should overrule the requirement, announced in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S. Ct. 2151, 150 L. Ed. 2d 272 (2001), that lower courts must first decide the "constitutional question" before they turn to the "qualified immunity question." See id., at 200, 121 S. Ct. 2151, 150 L. Ed. 2d 272 ("[T]he first inquiry must be whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged").

Id. at 387 (Breyer, J., concurring). Justice Breyer also suggested that interested readers could view the video of the crash using a link provided with the opinion.