County of Sacramento v. Lewis

523 U.S. 833 (1998)

Quick Summary

Lewis (plaintiff) involving Deputy James Everett Smith (defendant), the dispute centered on whether a high-speed police chase resulting in death violated substantive due process rights. The main issue was whether Smith’s actions were so egregious as to ‘shock the conscience’ and thus breach the Fourteenth Amendment.

The United States Supreme Court concluded that Smith’s conduct during the pursuit did not exhibit intent to harm and did not shock the conscience, thereby not violating substantive due process.

Facts of the Case

Deputy James Everett Smith (defendant), a Sacramento County sheriff, and Officer Murray Stapp responded to a call to disperse a fight. As they returned to their patrol car, they encountered a motorcycle driven by Brian Willard, with Philip Lewis (plaintiff), a 16-year-old passenger. Unrelated to the initial fight, Willard sped away when signaled to stop, prompting Smith to engage in a high-speed pursuit.

The chase, reaching speeds over 100 miles per hour through a residential area, ended tragically when the motorcycle tipped and Smith’s patrol car collided with Lewis, resulting in his fatal injuries. The parents of Lewis filed suit, claiming Smith’s actions during the pursuit violated their son’s substantive due process right to life under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The District Court granted summary judgment for Deputy Smith, citing qualified immunity.
  2. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, suggesting Smith’s conduct could constitute deliberate indifference.
  3. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the standard of culpability for law enforcement officers in pursuit cases.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender.

Rule of Law

A violation of substantive due process occurs when government conduct can be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience-shocking, in a constitutional sense.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Court reasoned that substantive due process protects against arbitrary government action but does not impose liability for every state-caused harm. It emphasized that only the most egregious official conduct, which shocks the conscience, would violate substantive due process.

In this context, the Court determined that rapid decision-making during a police pursuit does not equate to deliberate indifference because officers must balance the need to apprehend suspects with potential dangers to public safety.

Thus, unless there is evidence of intent to harm beyond the legitimate objective of arrest, such conduct does not rise to a level that shocks the conscience. The Court held that in high-speed chases without intent to harm or worsen the legal plight of suspects, there is no substantive due process violation.


The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit and held that Deputy Smith’s actions did not violate substantive due process as they did not meet the conscience-shocking standard necessary for a due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Key Takeaways

  1. Substantive due process protection extends only to executive actions that are ‘conscience shocking’ and arbitrary in a constitutional sense.
  2. High-speed pursuits by police officers aiming to apprehend suspects do not inherently violate substantive due process if there is no intent to cause harm beyond the objective of arrest.
  3. The ‘shocks the conscience’ standard is not met by mere negligence or even recklessness in the context of split-second police decisions during chases.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes arbitrary government action in the context of substantive due process?

Arbitrary government action in the context of substantive due process refers to state conduct that lacks a legitimate government purpose or is not grounded in reasoned judgment, often disproportionately affecting individual rights.

  • For example: A law that bans individuals from a specific profession without a compelling safety or societal reason might be deemed arbitrary.

How does the 'shocks the conscience' standard apply to law enforcement conduct?

The ‘shocks the conscience’ standard applies to law enforcement conduct when actions are so brutal, demeaning, or harmful that they go beyond all possible bounds of decency and can be considered egregious abuses of government power.

  • For example: Excessive force used by police without provocation or necessity during an arrest might meet this standard.

What differentiates deliberate indifference from negligence in legal liability cases?

Deliberate indifference involves a conscious or reckless disregard for an individual’s rights or safety, implying awareness of significant risks, while negligence entails a failure to exercise reasonable care without necessarily being aware of such risks.

  • For example: Ignoring an inmate’s serious medical needs may be deliberate indifference, whereas accidentally failing to mop a wet floor might constitute negligence.


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