More Power, Less Responsibility

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview

More Power, Less Responsibility


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


On May 26, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a watershed ruling in American jurisprudence, expanding once again the scope of police powers while decreasing their public accountability.

County of Sacramento v. Lewis involved a 1990 high-speed chase that began when Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy James Everett Smith took off after a motorcycle when its driver, Brian Willard, failed to stop at the hand signal of a city police officer. The chase reached speeds of 100 miles per hour and proceeded through residential streets, hard turns, and stop signs, forcing at least two cars and one bicyclist completely off the road. After all this, Willard approached a hill, missed a turn, and went into a skid. Cresting the hill, Deputy Smith slammed into Willard's passenger, inflicting massive injuries. Sixteen-year-old Philip Lewis died at the scene.

Lewis' parents sued the deputy, the county sheriff's department, and Sacramento County for depriving their son of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to life and personal security without substantive due process. Their action was brought under laws broadly used to sue local governments or officials accused of violating the civil rights of American citizens.

The Supreme Court's May 26 decision in the case reversed a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which had upheld the Lewises' claims. According to the circuit court, petitioners for the victim established that police had shown "deliberate or reckless indifference to life," thus meeting the proper criterion to determine police culpability.

In reversing this standard, the Supreme Court ruled--unanimously--that law enforcement officials cannot be held responsible for injuries caused to innocents by high-speed chases unless their actions are so egregious that they "shock the conscience." While acknowledging that the chase posed an eminent danger to anyone in its path and was directly responsible for the death of a sixteen-year-old boy, not one of the nine consciences sitting on the Supreme Court was shocked by this 100-mile-per-hour chase through residential streets. The victim's right to life, they said, was therefore not violated.

The justices took pains to totally exonerate Deputy Smith of any wrongdoing or responsibility. They also applied their ruling as broadly as possible to similar police actions. "A police officer," they said, "does not violate substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender." In other words, if they are attempting to apprehend a "suspected offender," police may do so with deliberate or reckless indifference to life without fear of reprisal.

Several justices stated that the Fourth Amendment was actually the appropriate venue under which the Lewises' challenge should have been brought. Then, in an unusual "aside," they preempted any future attempts to use this approach by stating that, since the Fourth Amendment covers only searches and seizures, neither of which took place in this case, their ruling would have been the same under that amendment.

Protection from governmental arbitrariness is the essential core of all Americans' due process rights. Over the years, however, case law has progressively eroded those protections in various ways and declared that only the most egregious executive action can be said to be "arbitrary" in the constitutional sense. Now the High Court has established that proving the "deliberate indifference" of police is no longer enough to condemn their actions. Actions of law enforcement will no longer be condemned by the courts unless victims can prove that police "intended to cause harm" in a manner that "shocks the conscience."

The justices acknowledged that, while prudence would have repressed Smith's reaction, his "instinct" was to do his job, not to induce Willard's lawlessness or to terrorize, cause harm, or kill other citizens.

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