Note – Return to “Reasonable” in Section 1983 Police Pursuit Excessive Force Litigation

Benjamin Buchwalter

Volume 65, Issue 6, 1665-1690

Scott v. Harris set the standard that a police officer’s use of deadly force to terminate a high-speed chase is presumptively reasonable, even if it is likely to kill or seriously injure the suspect. The implications of this are troubling: twenty-eight percent of people killed in police pursuits each year are innocent bystanders, and vehicle accidents are the most common cause of police deaths. Scott was wrongly decided because it departed from the case-by-case reasonableness standard upon which the Supreme Court previously relied for excessive force cases, failed to consider the potential risk that these chases added to the public, and did not contemplate safe alternative means of punishing suspects.

Despite the dangers of Scott’s presumptive reasonableness standard, reversal is not likely. This was emphasized by the Supreme Court’s 2014 Plumhoff v. Rickard decision, in which the Court reaffirmed—by a nine-to-zero margin—that use of deadly force to terminate a high-speed chase is presumptively reasonable. Accordingly, this Note argues that federal courts should consider state and local excessive force guidelines to determine what is “reasonable” and what violates “clearly established law.” This Note also presents guideline excessive force policies that are tailored to urban and rural areas. These policies take into account the danger that police chases add to the public and set forth means that are available to apprehend suspects safely at a later time, while understanding the duty of police officers to ensure that potentially violent criminals are apprehended quickly.

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