Supreme Court Weighs 'Qualified Immunity' for Cops Who Use Deadly Force to End Car Chases

Aggressive police tactics go on trial at the high court.


Are the police allowed to use deadly force to end a high-speed car chase? The U.S. Supreme Court will grapple with that question next month when it hears oral arguments in the case of Plumhoff v. Rickard.

At issue is a 2004 incident that began with a traffic stop for a busted headlight and ended some 10 minutes later with multiple police officers firing a total of 15 rounds into the fleeing vehicle, killing the driver, Donald Rickard, and his passenger, a woman named Kelly Allen, both of whom were unarmed.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Rickard's family, the officers involved in the shooting invoked the doctrine of "qualified immunity," a legal defense which, in the words of a 1982 Supreme Court opinion, protects "government officials…from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

But that defense failed to persuade the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, which ruled against the West Memphis, Arkansas officers who shot and killed Rickard and his companion. According to the district court, "the facts here do not support a finding that a reasonable officer would have considered the fleeing suspects a clear risk to others." Indeed, that court declared, "[t]he only objectively reasonable threat that Rickard posed was the threat that the officers also posed by participating in the pursuit." The officers appealed that loss, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of qualified immunity, declaring it "cannot conclude that the officers' conduct was reasonable as a matter of law."

Which brings us back to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will now consider whether the 6th Circuit got it right, or whether the police officers are entitled to qualified immunity for their decision to use deadly force against Rickard and Allen.

Although the Rickard family has repeatedly prevailed in the lower courts, they face a far steeper challenge at the Supreme Court. That's because in the 2007 case of Scott v. Harris, the Court ruled eight-to-one in favor of a Georgia deputy sheriff who rammed his cruiser into the vehicle of a fleeing suspect in order to bring a high-speed chase to an end, causing a crash that left the suspect paralyzed. "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," declared the majority opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia, "even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death." Of the eight justices who voted for that outcome, seven of them—Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito—remain on the bench.

Unsurprisingly, Officer Vance Plumhoff and his colleagues in the West Memphis police force have cited that precedent in support of their own actions. Moreover, the officers are urging the Supreme Court to take the opportunity presented by this case to send a clear signal discouraging future lawbreakers from attempting their own motorized flights from justice. As the officers' main brief puts it, "[t]he only recourse some officers have in some situations: shooting to disable the threat."

For its part, the Obama administration has sided with the police, filing a brief that asks the Supreme Court to reject the 6th Circuit's judgment and grant qualified immunity. "A reasonable officer reviewing [Scott v. Harris] could conclude that she was not clearly required by the Constitution to give up the chase rather than use deadly force," the administration argues.

Bottom line? Critics of aggressive police tactics are unlikely to find themselves celebrating the eventual ruling. Judging by the Court's precedent and its current disposition, this case appears to be a winner for law enforcement.