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County of Sacramento v. Lewis


The Lewis case required the U.S. Supreme Court to wrestle with the issue of police chases. The Court had to choose between two standards of liability for police officers in the context of due process claims arising out of high speed chases. In holding for the police officer, the Court decided to adopt the standard that gave police officers more freedom to pursue fleeing criminal suspects without fear of legal reprisal.

On the evening of 22 May 1990, Sacramento County sheriff's deputy James Everett Smith and officer Murray Stapp were breaking up a fight when a motorcycle began to approach them at high speed. Stapp yelled at the driver to stop, climbed into his patrol car, moved his car closer to Smith's to hem in the driver, and turned on his patrol car's warning lights. The motorcyclist, 18 year-old Brian Willard, driving with 16 year-old Philip Lewis on the back seat, slipped past the patrol cars and continued to drive at a high rate of speed. Smith turned on his lights and his siren and followed the motorcycle over the next 1.3 miles, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour.

As Willard attempted to make a hard left turn, the bike spun out of control and Smith's car spun into Lewis at a speed of approximately 40 miles per hour. Lewis was hurtled 70 feet in the air, and he died at the scene. Lewis' parents filed state and federal civil rights claims in federal court against Sacramento County, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, and Smith personally, claiming that Smith had violated Lewis' Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause right to life by continuing the high-speed chase.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that no trial was necessary because there was no factual dispute and they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The district court granted the motion for all the parties, ruling that the plaintiffs had not established that their son had a due process right in the context of high-speed police chases at the time of the incident. According to the district court, the Lewises could not prevail because the state of the law on due process in federal court was not clearly defined in May of 1990. The Lewises appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the ruling on municipal liability but reversed the summary judgment for Smith. According to the appeals court, Lewis did have a substantive due process right in the context of high-speed police pursuits, and there was a question as to whether that right had been violated. Furthermore, the appeals court held that the appropriate standard to be applied by the trial court at trial was "deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard for, a person's right to life and personal security." Smith asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and the Court consented.

Although there were differences between the justices in their reasoning, a unanimous Court reversed. In the majority opinion, written by Justice Souter, the Court resolved a split between the lower courts on the issue of the proper legal standard for high-speed police chases. Some courts had been asking in similar cases whether the police officer's conduct constituted "deliberate indifference" to human life, while other courts had been asking whether the police officer's conduct was "shocking to the conscience." The Court opted for the latter, higher standard, holding that a police officer engaged in a high-speed chase cannot be held responsible for resulting injuries under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment unless the officer's actions shocked the conscience of a reasonable person.

The Lewises had brought a claim under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This particular clause had been described by the Court as encompassing the right to fairness in governmental procedures, but it also had been described as enforcing "more than fair process." (quoting Washington v. Glucksberg [1997]) The right to due process, noted the Court, also guaranteed "substantive" due process, or the right to be free from certain governmental actions "regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to imlement them." (quoting Daniels v. Williams [1986]) The Court observed that there were two hurdles facing the Lewises: first, that the claim should have been made under some other constitutional provision; and second, that the allegations were "insufficient to state a substantive due process violation." Although the Court determined that the Lewises had properly based claims on the Due Process Clause, it concluded that the alleged actions of Smith did not constitute a violation of their son's substantive due process rights.

The "core concept" of due process, explained the Court, was "protection against arbitrary action." When the allegation involved "executive" action (as in the Lewises' case) as opposed to legislative action, "only the most egregious official conduct" could be called arbitrary if it shocked the conscience by violating "the decencies of civilized conduct." The Court had used the "shock the conscience" standard for about 50 years; it was the highest standard of proof for finding a person liable, and it remained unique to due process analysis to reinforce the notion that only the most egregious type of conduct on the part of government officials can give rise to a claim of executive abuse of power under the Due Process Clause. The guarantees under the Due Process Clause, lectured the Court, did not "entail a body of constitutional law imposing liability whenever someone cloaked with state authority causes harm."

In applying these principles, it was necessary for the Court to examine the context from which the claims arose. In some instances, the "deliberate indifference" standard was appropriate for finding liability on the part of a government actor. In other situations, though, the higher "shock the conscience" standard was appropriate. In claims arising from legislative action, for example, the denial of the right to an attorney or the right to humane prison conditions, the proper standard was "deliberate indifference" because such procedures arose from a deliberate governmental process. In contrast, a high-speed police chase was a situation in which the government actor, i.e. the police officer, had no chance to deliberate. The term "deliberate indifference" suggested that the standard was "sensibly employed only when actual deliberation [was] practical." When an officer had to make a snap decision, "even precipitate recklessness fail[ed] to inch close enough to harmful purpose to spark the shock" that could create liability.

Officer Smith had to make just such a split-second judgment in the motorcycle chase. Furthermore, stated the Court, Smith was not the only person responsible for Lewis' death. The police, in fact, "had done nothing to cause Willard's high-speed driving in the first place," nothing to inspire Willard's disregard for the law, "and nothing (beyond a refusal to call off the chase) to encourage [Willard] to race through traffic at breakneck speed forcing other drivers out of their travel lanes." Considering all the circumstances, the Court concluded that Smith could not be held liable to the Lewises under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S Constitution.

Several justices concurred in the judgment. Justice Rehnquist filed a short opinion that restated the holding and his approval of it. Justice Kennedy also wrote a concurring opinion in which Justice O'Connor joined. Justice Kennedy, like Justice Scalia, did not care for the term "shock the conscience" because it was such a subjective standard. However, Justice Kennedy maintained that Justice Souter had clearly explained the application of the term. Furthermore, the standard was not completely subjective because it contained objective considerations, such as history, tradition, and case precedents.

Justices Breyer and Stevens wrote separate concurring opinions. In its opinion, the majority had reached the constitutional issue of due process, and not the question of whether Smith enjoyed immunity from suit as a government official. Justice Stevens believed that the Court should have refrained from answering the constitutional question because the issue was "difficult and unresolved," and because the Court could have affirmed the judgment for Smith on the grounds that, as a government-employed police officer, he was immune from suit.

Justice Thomas joined a fifth concurring opinion, this one written by Justice Scalia. Scalia bluntly offered that the "changes in this Court's jurisprudence are attributable to changes in the Court's membership." Just one year earlier, in Washington v. Glucksberg, Justice Scalia reminded the majority, the Court had rejected the "shock the conscience" test. Justice Scalia would have used the standard formulated in Glucksberg, which was "whether our Nation has traditionally protected the rights [the Lewises] assert." Nothing in the Court's precedents suggested that "all government conduct deliberately indifferent to life, liberty, or property, violates the Due Process Clause," Scalia noted, so the Lewises could not base their claim on that constitutional provision. Scalia maintained that the Fourteenth Amendment should not be used to eclipse the systems of redress already in place on the state level. Moreover, added Scalia, it was "not fair to say that it was the police officer alone who `deprived' Lewis of his life." Scalia would have reversed the appeals court's decision, but he would have done so because the Lewises had offered "no textual or historical support for their alleged due process right," not because they had "failed to shock [his] still, soft voice within."

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentCounty of Sacramento v. Lewis - Significance, Further Readings