County of Sacramento v. Lewis,
523 U.S. 833 (1998)

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No. 96-1337. Argued December 9, 1997-Decided May 26,1998

After petitioner James Smith, a county sheriff's deputy, responded to a call along with another officer, Murray Stapp, the latter returned to his patrol car and saw a motorcycle approaching at high speed, driven by Brian Willard, and carrying Philip Lewis, respondents' decedent, as a passenger. Stapp turned on his rotating lights, yelled for the cycle to stop, and pulled his car closer to Smith's in an attempt to pen the cycle in, but Willard maneuvered between the two cars and sped off. Smith immediately switched on his own emergency lights and siren and began high-speed pursuit. The chase ended after the cycle tipped over. Smith slammed on his brakes, but his car skidded into Lewis, causing massive injuries and death. Respondents brought this action under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, alleging a deprivation of Lewis's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to life. The District Court granted summary judgment for Smith, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding, inter alia, that the appropriate degree of fault for substantive due process liability for high-speed police pursuits is deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person's right to life and personal security.

Held: A police officer does not violate substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a highspeed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender. Pp.840-855.

(a) The "more-specific-provision" rule of Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386, 395, does not bar respondents' suit. Graham simply requires that if a constitutional claim is covered by a specific constitutional provision, the claim must be analyzed under the standard appropriate to that specific provision, not under substantive due process. E. g., United States v. Lanier, 520 U. S. 259, 272, n. 7. Substantive due process analysis is therefore inappropriate here only if, as amici argue, respondents' claim is "covered by" the Fourth Amendment. It is not. That Amendment covers only "searches and seizures," neither of which took place here. No one suggests that there was a search, and this Court's cases foreclose finding a seizure, since Smith did not terminate Lewis's freedom



of movement through means intentionally applied. E. g., Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U. S. 593, 597. Pp. 842-845.

(b) Respondents' allegations are insufficient to state a substantive due process violation. Protection against governmental arbitrariness is the core of due process, e. g., Hurtado v. California, 110 U. S. 516, 527, including substantive due process, see, e. g., Daniels v. Williams, 474 U. S. 327, 331, but only the most egregious executive action can be said to be "arbitrary" in the constitutional sense, e. g., Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U. S. 115, 129; the cognizable level of executive abuse of power is that which shocks the conscience, e. g., id., at 128; Rochin v. California, 342 U. S. 165, 172-173. The conscience-shocking concept points clearly away from liability, or clearly toward it, only at the ends of the tort law's culpability spectrum: Liability for negligently inflicted harm is categorically beneath the constitutional due process threshold, see, e. g., Daniels v. Williams, 474 U. S., at 328, while conduct deliberately intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest is the sort of official action most likely to rise to the conscienceshocking level, see id., at 331. Whether that level is reached when culpability falls between negligence and intentional conduct is a matter for closer calls. The Court has recognized that deliberate indifference is egregious enough to state a substantive due process claim in one context, that of deliberate indifference to the medical needs of pretrial detainees, see City of Revere v. Massachusetts Gen. Hospital, 463 U. S. 239,244; cf. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 104, but rules of due process are not subject to mechanical application in unfamiliar territory, and the need to preserve the constitutional proportions of substantive due process demands an exact analysis of context and circumstances before deliberate indifference is condemned as conscience shocking, cf. Betts v. Brady, 316 U. S. 455, 462. Attention to the markedly different circumstances of normal pretrial custody and high-speed law enforcement chases shows why the deliberate indifference that shocks in the one context is less egregious in the other. In the circumstances of a highspeed chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender, where unforeseen circumstances demand an instant judgment on the part of an officer who feels the pulls of competing obligations, only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest will satisfy the shocksthe-conscience test. Such chases with no intent to harm suspects physically or to worsen their legal plight do not give rise to substantive due process liability. Cf. Whitley v. Albers, 475 U. S. 312, 320-321. The fault claimed on Smith's part fails to meet this test. Smith was faced with a course of lawless behavior for which the police were not to blame. They had done nothing to cause Willard's high-speed driving in the first place, nothing to excuse his flouting of the commonly understood police

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Official misconduct violates substantive due process only if it shocks the conscience or outrages a sense of decency.


After responding to a call alerting them to a fight, a sheriff's deputy and another police officer were going back to their cars when they saw a motorcycle approaching them. Two teenagers, Brian Willard and Philip Lewis, were riding on the motorcycle, which was traveling at a high speed. One of the officers turned on his car's overhead lights and ordered the riders to stop, while pulling his car closer to the other car in order to make them stop. However, the teenagers wove between the police cars, ignored the officer's order, and sped off. With his emergency lights on, the sheriff's deputy pursued the motorcycle at a speed of approximately 100 miles per hour. Willard tried to make a sharp turn on the motorcycle and turned over. The deputy tried to stop but was unable to stop in time and crashed into Lewis, the passenger on the motorcycle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.



  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Since the motorcycle riders did not obey the order of the law enforcement officer, they were responsible for causing the chase. Any misconduct by the officers thus was related to the legitimate goal of arresting the riders, and the officers did not chase the riders with the intent to harm them. The exigencies of a situation often force police to make split-second decisions based on their instincts, as happened here. Due process was not violated because this behavior would not outrage a sense of decency.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

Case Commentary

Government officials generally are protected from liability if they are acting within the scope of their official duties and using their best judgment at the time. Only if there is intent to cause bodily harm would there be a violation of due process because the conduct would be sufficiently shocking to meet the high standard required.

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