Justices in the Jury Box: Video Evidence and Summary Judgment in Scott V. Harris
Kessler, David K., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy
Some scholars have expressed concern that judges are encroaching on the fact-finding role of the jury through the use of summary judgment. (1) This concern is more acute in cases that turn on fact-specific inquiries, such as lawsuits where the defense claims qualified immunity. (2) Last term, in Scott v. Harris, (3) the Supreme Court overturned the decisions of the district and appellate courts, which had denied summary judgment to a defendant who claimed qualified immunity. (4) In Harris, the plaintiff argued that he had been unreasonably seized by a police officer who had rammed the plaintiff's car off the road to end a high speed car chase, leaving the plaintiff paralyzed. (5) After reviewing video footage of the chase, (6) the Court determined that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiff posed a danger to the community, making the officer's seizure of the plaintiff objectively reasonable. (7) Because an objectively reasonable seizure does not violate clearly established Fourth Amendment rights, the officer enjoyed qualified immunity from the suit. This Comment argues that the Court's decision in Harris encroached on the jury's role. Indeed, the number of judges who disagreed with the Court and the nature of the video evidence on which the Court relied suggest that a genuine issue of material fact did exist. Moreover, the Court's reliance on video evidence raises the concern that use of such evidence in summary judgment proceedings will lead judges to assume the jury's fact-finding role.
On the night of March 29, 2001, a Georgia police officer clocked nineteen-year-old Victor Harris's car speeding at 73 miles-per-hour in a zone with a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. (8) The officer turned on his flashing blue lights as he followed Harris's car, but Harris refused to slow down. (9) Other police officers, including Deputy Timothy Scott, joined in the pursuit. (10) At one point in the chase, Harris pulled his car into a parking lot and was nearly trapped by police cars. (11) He managed to get his car back on the highway, colliding with Scott's car in the process. (12) Scott, leading the pursuit at that point, then requested and received permission to disable Harris's car, and proceeded to push his bumper into Harris's vehicle. (13) Harris lost control of his car, ran off the road, crashed, and suffered injuries that left him a quadriplegic. (14) Harris filed suit, alleging, among other things, that Scott used excessive force to end the chase and thereby unreasonably seized Harris in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (15) Scott responded by filing a motion for summary judgment based on a defense of qualified immunity. (16)
The District Court denied Scott's motion for summary judgment because it believed that the case presented "material issues of fact" that a jury would have to resolve. (17) The court first decided that Harris had been seized. (18) Drawing all disputed facts in favor of Harris, the court next determined that a jury could find the seizure to be objectively unreasonable. According to the court, a jury could find that Harris's initial speeding did not pose an immediate threat to others, and that his subsequent conduct during the chase, in which he "did not use his vehicle in an aggressive manner," did not create such a threat. (19) Finally, the court considered whether Scott was protected by qualified immunity for his alleged violation of Harris's Fourth Amendment right. Scott would not be entitled to such immunity if a jury determined that "it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that Scott's conduct was unlawful." (20) The court held that a reasonable jury could find that Scott did not know Harris's underlying crime, and that the evidence suggested that Harris posed little danger to officers or civilians. (21) Because these findings created a genuine issue of material fact, the court denied summary judgment. (22)
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision to deny Scott summary judgment against Harris. …