Judicial Notebook

In 2001, a police officer clocked a car driven by 19-year-old Victor Harris as going 73 mph in a 55-mph zone and attempted to pull the vehicle over. Harris, however, sped away and led the police on a high-speed chase. Six minutes into the chase, another officer rammed his police car into Harris's in an attempt to stop him. Harris lost control of his car, which left the road and overturned. He was severely injured and rendered quadriplegic. Cameras in the pursuing police officers' cars captured the chase on videotape.

Harris alleged that the act of ramming his vehicle was an excessive use of force that resulted in an unreasonable seizure of his person and sued the officer for violating his Fourth Amendment rights (Scott v. Harris, 2007). The officer filed a motion for summary judgment asking the trial court to dismiss the case. Finding that the case presented genuine issues of material fact that should be considered by a jury, the trial court denied the motion. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this denial.

Judicial humility?

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which considered whether "taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?" In making this determination, the court weighed the risks that the officer's conduct posed to Harris against the threat Harris posed to the public. In their briefs and arguments, the two sides presented different characterizations of the nature of the chase and the danger it posed. The court, however, found that the videotape "quite clearly contradicts" Harris' version of the events and concluded that the chase that Harris initiated posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious injury to others and that the officer's maneuver was reasonable. Finding that no reasonable jury could have found otherwise, the court concluded that the officer was entitled to summary judgment and reversed the lower courts. The court indicated that it was "quite happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself," and posted it on the Internet (www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/video/scott_v_harris.rmbv).

Justice John Paul Stevens, however, dissented in the case, arguing that the videotape confirmed rather than contradicted the lower courts' appraisal of the facts at issue, and would have allowed the case to go to a jury. Noting the differing views of the courts that had heard the case, he argued that, "If two groups of judges can disagree so vehemently about the nature of the pursuit and the circumstances surrounding that pursuit, it seems eminently likely that a reasonable juror could disagree with this Court's characterization of events."

Empirical evidence

A group of researchers took up the invitation to view the videotape and showed it to a large sample of individuals (Kahan, Hoffman, & Braman, in press, "Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe?"). Participants read a description of the case and then watched the videotape. They were then asked questions about the risks posed by Harris's driving, the advisability of the pursuit, the relative culpability of Harris and the police, and the justifiability of the officer's decision to ram Harris's car.

Most of the respondents drew the same conclusion as the Supreme Court. However, there was variation in respondents' assessments of the tape across different racial groups and cultural worldviews. For example, African-Americans and egalitarians were less likely to agree with the court than were whites and people who endorsed social hierarchy. The researchers advocate "judicial humility" when considering motions for summary judgment, suggesting that judges should consciously attend to whether there are distinguishable groups of potential jurors who might disagree with a particular characterization of the facts.

Scott v. Harris raises a host of questions that should interest psychologists. In addition to questions about cultural cognition, researchers might study the consequences of such perceptions for judgments about the legitimacy of the law, how these differences in perception are resolved among the members of a deliberating jury and how judges make summary judgment determinations. In addition, psychological research might address the role of video evidence on legal decision-making, including the effects of differing fields of vision or camera angles (see e.g., Lassiter et al., 2001, for a review of such work in the context of videotaped confessions).


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).