Scott v. Harris,
550 U.S. 372 (2007)

Annotate this Case




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 05–1631. Argued February 26, 2007—Decided April 30, 2007

Deputy Timothy Scott, petitioner here, terminated a high-speed pursuit of respondent’s car by applying his push bumper to the rear of the vehicle, causing it to leave the road and crash. Respondent was rendered quadriplegic. He filed suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983 alleging, inter alia, the use of excessive force resulting in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The District Court denied Scott’s summary judgment motion, which was based on qualified immunity. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed on interlocutory appeal, concluding, inter alia, that Scott’s actions could constitute “deadly force” under Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1; that the use of such force in this context would violate respondent’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force during a seizure; and that a reasonable jury could so find.

Held: Because the car chase respondent initiated posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others, Scott’s attempt to terminate the chase by forcing respondent off the road was reasonable, and Scott is entitled to summary judgment. Pp. 3–13.

   (a) Qualified immunity requires resolution of a “threshold question: Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right?” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 201. Pp. 3–4.

   (b) The record in this case includes a videotape capturing the events in question. Where, as here, the record blatantly contradicts the plaintiff’s version of events so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a summary judgment motion. Pp. 5–8.

   (c) Viewing the facts in the light depicted by the videotape, it is clear that Deputy Scott did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 8–13.

      (i) Garner did not establish a magical on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an officer’s actions constitute “deadly force.” The Court there simply applied the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” test to the use of a particular type of force in a particular situation. That case has scant applicability to this one, which has vastly different facts. Whether or not Scott’s actions constituted “deadly force,” what matters is whether those actions were reasonable. Pp. 8–10.

      (ii) In determining a seizure’s reasonableness, the Court balances the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests allegedly justifying the intrusion. United States v. Place, 462 U. S. 696, 703. In weighing the high likelihood of serious injury or death to respondent that Scott’s actions posed against the actual and imminent threat that respondent posed to the lives of others, the Court takes account of the number of lives at risk and the relative culpability of the parties involved. Respondent intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in reckless, high-speed flight; those who might have been harmed had Scott not forced respondent off the road were entirely innocent. The Court concludes that it was reasonable for Scott to take the action he did. It rejects respondent’s argument that safety could have been assured if the police simply ceased their pursuit. The Court rules that a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car 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 injury or death. Pp. 10–13.

433 F. 3d 807, reversed.

   Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., and Breyer, J., filed concurring opinions. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Primary Holding

The Fourth Amendment does not prevent a police officer from ramming a fleeing suspect's car to end a high-speed chase, notwithstanding the risk of serious harm to the suspect.


Harris fled in his car after a police officer tried to pull him over, and a high-speed chase ensued. The police officer, Scott, tried to end the chase by ramming the other car with his cruiser, and Harris crashed. He suffered injuries that led to his becoming a quadriplegic. Harris brought a Fourth Amendment claim against Scott in federal court on the grounds that Scott had used excessive force that had resulted in an unreasonable seizure. The trial court was unpersuaded by Scott's argument that he had qualified immunity because he was a government official acting in his official capacity. The Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court's decision in favor of Harris, since it ruled that Scott had engaged in an unreasonable seizure that violated the Fourth Amendment. It pointed out that there was no imminent threat of harm because the roads were relatively quiet, Harris was in control of his vehicle, and there was no reason to use deadly force.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Evidence presented at trial, such as a videotape of the chase, showed that the suspect in fact was not driving responsibly during the chase but was driving recklessly in a manner that created an actual and imminent threat of serious harm to anyone in his vicinity. This made the police officer's actions reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, especially since the suspect created the risk himself. While it was likely that the suspect would be harmed by the use of force, there was also a substantial likelihood that the suspect would have caused harm to innocent bystanders if he had not been stopped. Police officers may use deadly force to prevent this type of harm.


  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)

The reasoning and the result are appropriate, but there should not be a rigid rule for these cases, which demand an individual analysis. Lower courts also should be allowed to decide whether qualified immunity should apply before proceeding to the merits of the constitutional claim.


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)

No reasonable jury could conclude that the police officer had violated the Fourth Amendment. Lower courts also should be allowed to decide issues such as qualified immunity before proceeding to weigh allegations of constitutional violations, depending on the situation. It would promote judicial economy to determine qualified immunity beforehand, since there might be no need to reach the merits in some cases. Thus, the rule articulated in Saucier v. Katz (2001) should be abrogated.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

The videotape was not conclusive, so a jury should be allowed to make a factual finding on whether the use of deadly force was excessive in this situation.

Case Commentary

It may seem strange that the court found that there were no issues of material fact when there was a videotape that provided a contradictory version of events to what the plaintiff submitted. However, the qualified immunity doctrine may make courts more reluctant to find that summary judgment is unwarranted when there is only a very small likelihood that the plaintiff's story is credible.

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