Supreme Court Uses Video to Assess Reasonableness of Police Actions in High Speed Chase

In a novel approach, the United States Supreme Court justices used a video of a high speed chase to determine that an officer’s bump of the fleeing suspect’s vehicle was reasonable. Scott v. Harris, 2006 Term, No. 05-0631 (April 30, 2007).

After refusing to pull over for a Georgia county deputy, Victor Harris led police officers on a high-speed chase, ending after ten miles, when officer Timothy Scott bumped the rear end of Harris’ vehicle. Id. Unfortunately, Harris lost control of his vehicle, flipping it and ending up a quadriplegic. Id.

Harris sued Scott, under 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights, viz. use of excessive force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Scott asked for summary judgment.

When reviewing a case for summary judgment, a court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the [summary judgment] motion.” Id. at 5. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). However, the court need only view facts in the light most favorable to the moving party if there is a “genuine” dispute as to those facts. Id. at 7. Fed. Rule. Civ. Proc. 56(c). Here, after viewing the video, filmed from the dashboard of a squad car, the Court declined to see Harris’ claim that he was driving in a manner more like attempting to pass his driving test than fleeing from police, in a light favorable to the plaintiff. Id. at 5. No reasonable jury, having watched the video, could see anything but a dangerous high-speed chase. Id. at 6.

Having held that no facts were in controversy, the Court needed only to determine whether Scott’s bump of Harris’ car was reasonable. See generally, Scott pp. 10-11. After Harris had struck Scott’s patrol car in a parking lot, during the chase, Scott chased Harris for ten miles. He called his commanding officer to ask for permission to end the chase by employing a Precision Intervention Technique (“PIT”) maneuver, which causes the fleeing vehicle to spin to a stop. Scott was given the go-ahead, but opted to merely bump the rear of Harris’ car. Unfortunately, Harris went out of control and flipped the vehicle. The Court found that Scott had reasonably balanced the risk Harris was posing to pedestrians and other drivers with the risk posed to Harris by Scott’s bump.

The Court left us with two additional comments on high-speed chases. First, the Court declined to entertain the criminal defense attorney’s claim that Scott could have protected the public by calling off the chase. Id. at 12. Police need not have taken the chance Harris would have recognized that the officers had stopped, rather than simply changed tactics, and slow down. Id. at 12. Second, the Court was loath to create a rule whereby police would be required to allowing a fleeing suspect to escape just because his driving had become reckless. Id. at 12.