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Wednesday
Mar252009

Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe? An Empirical Examination of Scott v. Harris

Based on a video shot from inside a police cruiser, the U.S. Supreme court concluded "no reasonable juror" could find that the risk posed by a fleeing motorist did not warrant deadly force (the deliberate ramming of his car) to stop him. But a study by the Cultural Cognition Project (published in the Harvard Law Review) finds that perceptions of risk among persons who viewed the tape were highly conditional on those persons' cultural worldviews.

This paper accepts the unusual invitation to see for yourself issued by the Supreme Court in Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769 (2007). Scott held that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately rammed his car into that of a fleeing motorist who refused to pull over for speeding and instead attempted to evade the police in a high-speed chase. The majority did not attempt to rebut the arguments of the single Justice who disagreed with its conclusion that no reasonable juror could find the fleeing driver did not pose a deadly risk to the public. Instead, the Court uploaded to its website a video of the chase, filmed from inside the pursuing police cruisers, and invited members of the public to make up their own minds after viewing it. We showed the video to a diverse sample of 1,350 Americans. Overall a majority agreed with the Court's resolution of the key issues, but within the sample there were sharp differences of opinion along cultural, ideological, and other lines. We attribute these divisions to the psychological disposition of individuals to resolve disputed facts in a manner supportive of their group identities. The paper also addresses the normative significance of these findings. The result in the case, we argue, might be defensible, but the Court's reasoning was not. By insisting there was only one reasonable view of facts, the Court needlessly invested its decision with culturally partisan overtones that detracted from the decision's legitimacy.

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