Any officer who's been involved in a vehicle pursuit that resulted in property damage, bodily injury, or death should be concerned with at least three levels of liability. Departmental discipline may be imposed if the pursuit violates agency policy. Tort liability may be imposed through a lawsuit filed in state court. And plaintiffs may file a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages.

Of course, officers must also be concerned with the immediate risks to their own safety, as well as the safety of the occupants of the pursued vehicle and members of the general public.

Naturally, officers should obey departmental restrictions on when to initiate a pursuit, when to discontinue it, and how to conduct it. However, even though failure to follow a departmental policy may generate internal discipline, it is not in itself sufficient to impose civil liability. And whether or not an officer can be held liable in damages in a state tort suit will depend on the immunities created by state law, which may vary from state to state.

Federal civil liability, on the other hand, is subject to uniform constitutional principles that apply in all states. Attorneys for those injured or killed as a result of police vehicle pursuits have sought damages under two separate constitutional provisions. In a pair of decisions, the Supreme Court has set forth the standards for analyzing these claims.

Fourteenth Amendment: County of Sacramento v. Lewis

Sixteen-year-old Philip Lewis was a passenger on a motorcycle operated by 18-year-old Brian Willard when Sacramento County deputy sheriffs attempted to make a traffic stop. Willard tried to evade, speeding up to 100 mph. When he lost control and the bike went down, the pursuing patrol car struck and killed Lewis.

Lewis's parents brought a federal suit, alleging a violation of their son's Fourteenth Amendment due process right to life. The district court granted the deputies immunity from suit, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and ordered the deputies to stand trial, ruling that deliberate indifference was enough to impose liability.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, rejecting its "deliberate indifference" test for liability, and holding that a due process violation requires a showing of intentional conduct by police that "shocks the conscience." This means, said the court, "conduct intended to injure in some unjustifiable way." Since the pursuing deputy did not intend to injure the motorcycle passengers, there was no due process violation.

The Supreme Court made clear in this 1998 decision that when the police have done nothing wrong in trying to apprehend a fleeing suspect, there is no federal civil liability. Instead, the blame is rightly placed on the driver who fails to comply with police directions to stop:

"The deputy was faced with a course of lawless behavior for which the police were not to blame … We hold that high-speed chases with no intent to harm suspects physically or to worsen their legal plight do not give rise to liability under the Fourteenth Amendment" (County of Sacramento v. Lewis).

Fourth Amendment: Scott v. Harris

Coweta County, Ga., deputies became involved in a high-speed pursuit of the speeding car being driven by 19-year-old Victor Harris. Speeds reached 85 mph over a 10-mile distance before a deputy sought and received permission to use a PIT maneuver. Deciding the PIT was too risky at the high speed, the deputy instead rammed the back of Harris's car with the push bumper. Harris lost control, crashed, and became a quadriplegic. He sued for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, claiming excessive force.

Both the federal district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal denied the deputies relief from the lawsuit. Those courts thought a jury should be permitted to award damages to Harris, partly because the deputies could have simply abandoned the chase instead of resorting to a tactic that raised the risk of harm. In a 2007 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the lower courts.

The high court said that police are under no duty to call a halt to their lawful efforts to apprehend a suspect just because the suspect chooses to flee, rather than submit. Echoing what they had said earlier in Sacramento County v. Lewis about who is really to blame when a fleeing suspect gets hurt, the court said, "It was Harris, after all, who intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight that ultimately produced [his injuries]."

The court expressly rejected the argument that police must call off a pursuit once the suspect begins driving so dangerously as to imperil public safety. The use of reasonable force to terminate a dangerous pursuit was upheld, even though it posed a risk of injuring or even killing the fleeing driver:

"We are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people's lives in danger. Instead we lay down a more sensible rule: A police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death" (Scott v. Harris).

The Best Proof

In the Scott case, the justices of the Supreme Court viewed the patrol-car videotape of the entire pursuit, which was part of the record on appeal. The tape showed how Harris's dangerous driving jeopardized other motorists, who had to swerve onto the shoulders of the highway to avoid being hit. This tape flatly contradicted the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint, and allowed the court to disregard those allegations as "utterly discredited."

The court said that after watching the tape, no reasonable jury could have believed the plaintiff's allegations that his driving did not endanger the public.

Without the videotape, this case might have been allowed to go to a jury as a credibility contest between the plaintiff and the deputies. Had a jury believed a sympathetic 19-year-old quadriplegic plaintiff, the damages against the county could have run into the millions of dollars. The Scott decision illustrates the importance (and economic value) of videotaped evidence from on-board cameras in patrol cars.