Monday, April 30, 2007

It's All in the Phrasing: Concerning Scott v. Harris

First, I would like to thank DC for his kind gesture of friendship in allowing me to guest post on this finest of political blogs. I consider it an honor.

On with the legal mumbo jumbo.

The Supreme Court decided today in Scott v. Harris (an 8-1 decision with Justice Stevens dissenting) that a police officer who purposefully rams a fleeing car in order to end a high speed chase does not violate the Fourth Amendment. In simple terms, they determined that such an action on the part of a police officer is reasonable, and that (at least in this specific case) no reasonable jury could conclude otherwise. The practical implication of this is that a person injured or killed in such an incident cannot sue the police officer for acting unreasonably. On the whole, I think it is reasonable for a police officer to engage in this sort of action. As Justice Scalia put it, such chases "endanger the lives of innocent bystanders," and it is naturally the police officer's responsibility to protect said innocent bystanders. However, with that being admitted, I have trouble seeing why a jury cannot decide this based on the facts of a specific case.

This seemed to be the main crux of Justice Stevens' dissent. He noted that his colleagues had set themselves up as "eight jurors on this Court," effectively playing the role of a jury in seeing if the facts created a reasonable action. However, as Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog notes:

That description, however valid, does not do away with the reality that this decision is a constitutional holding more than it is an essay about facts, and very likely will be applied by lower courts beyond its specific factual setting.

The point here is that the Court did not simply say "This police officer in this specific case acted reasonably." Rather, it established a per se rule stating that any attempt by a police officer to end a high-speed chase by causing the fleeing car to crash is reasonable. So, it did not simply act as a jury in this specific case; it acted as the jury for all future cases of this sort.

It is the jury's job to determine how the facts add up, and whether the sum of all the facts makes the alleged action reasonable or unreasonable. I can think of any number of situations where the facts may make such an action unreasonable (or at least not obviously reasonable). For instance, what about time considerations? If a police officer turns on his siren, and the driver immediately speeds up, is that grounds for a "reasonable" ramming? Or, what if it is readily known that there are young passengers in the car? Is such a ramming still reasonable?

I know the Supreme Court likes "bright line" rules, but justice is more ably administered when the facts of any given case are presented and considered by a jury. Of course, juries do make mistakes of law from time to time (deciding one way when, as a matter of law, the opposite is clearly true), and it is perfectly reasonable and desirable for judges to step in and overturn juries' decisions in such instances. But, judges should not be establishing per se rules that will, in effect, decide cases before even considering the unique facts.

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