Supreme Court

Supreme Court Appears Ready to Rule for Police in Deadly Car Chase

Qualified immunity will likely be extended to officers who used deadly force.


The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on Tuesday in a case testing the reach of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine designed to shield government officials from civil lawsuits "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." By the time the proceedings came to a close, it looked as if a majority of the justices were prepared to vote in favor of the West Memphis, Arkansas, police officers whose use of deadly force lay at the heart of the case.

At issue in Plumhoff v. Rickard was a 2004 high-speed car chase that started with a routine traffic stop and ended with the police firing 15 rounds into the fleeing vehicle, killing both the driver, Donald Rickard, and his passenger, Kelly Allen, both unarmed. In 2012 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled against the police, declaring that because it "cannot conclude that the officers' conduct was reasonable as a matter of law," qualified immunity must be denied to the them. A majority of the Supreme Court now appears poised to call that verdict into question.

The fleeing driver "has already gone 100 miles an hour," observed Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and then he tried to escape again. "Why would a reasonable officer not be suspicious that more reckless driving is going to occur?"

Justice Antonin Scalia expressed a similar view. Even assuming the most sympathetic set of facts in favor of Rickard, Scalia maintained, "we are still left with a very dangerous man careening down the road, who is surrounded by police cars and still tries to get away to continue his careening."

Gary K. Smith, the Memphis lawyer representing Rickard's family, conceded that "Mr. Rickard's conduct was unreasonable and he has culpability," but argued that the "threshold issue is should [the police] have used deadly force in that circumstance." Smith stressed that the presence of a passenger "should have been a factor in the reasonable officer's judgment about whether or not to initiate deadly force."

But that line of argument was promptly challenged by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "What do you say clearly establishes that?" she responded. Is there any case that says the police should not use deadly force "when there is a passenger?" Smith admitted he could point to no such case in support of his position.

Smith also failed to gain traction for his theory that the police should have employed less-than-deadly force to stop the chase. "You can disable the car with the gun," he said. "You can shoot the tires."

That's a "very good question, why didn't they shoot the tires out?" observed Justice Stephen Breyer. But the answer, Breyer continued, is "I don't know," which means you cannot say "it was clearly established that they had to shoot the tires out." In other words, because there was no case on the books requiring such tactics in lieu of deadly force, the officers were under no obligation to do so.

Such sharp questioning for the Rickard family attorney came as little surprise. When the Supreme Court last confronted the use of deadly force by the police to end a high-speed car chase, the justices voted eight-to-one in favor of the officer who rammed his cruiser into the fleeing vehicle, causing an accident 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 in Scott v. Harris (2007), "even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death."

Judging by yesterday's oral argument, the spirit of that past ruling, though not the same legal principle underlining it, will likely guide the outcome of the present case.

A ruling in Plumhoff v. Rickard is expected by June.

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  1. I’ve just figured out the solution to the abortion thread. More articles like this. Constant nutpunches are bound to leave everyone sterile, thus negating the need for abortion.

  2. New professionalism!

  3. insofartheir conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known

    So its actually written into the law that, if you’re a cop, ignorance of the law is a defence?

    1. This phenomenon, i.e., the mundane can not cite ignorance of the millions of rules, regulations, ordinances, acts, statutes and doctrines as a defense whereas those charged with enforcing the same can, is prima facie evidence of a police state.

      1. ^THIS^

        This is why Harry Connick, Sr. the New Orleans DA won when his jurisdiction was sued. He didn’t train is ADAs to turn over exculpatory evidence, therefore, they’re not obligated to do so. Even if it’s the law.

  4. Jury, judge & executioner.

  5. So no go unless you can find a case that’s exactly on point. In other words, FYTW.

  6. Constitutionally speaking, isn’t qualified immunity pulled out of thin air as it is? In any case, when this court is done with it, state agents will end up with absolute immunity.

    1. In a word, FoE, yes. A good read is Justice Doulgas’ dissent in Pierson v. Ray, 386 US 547, 559-567 (1967).

      In my view, Justice Douglas’ overall jurisprudence is far more friendly to liberty than that of Justice Thomas.

  7. worthless fucking lawyer….

    “Is there any case that says the police should not use deadly force … Smith admitted he could point to no such case…”

    ummm dunno maybe the passenger is a HOSTAGE

    but hey, we live in a world where everyone is a criminal. so the passenger’s guilt was already established in both the judge’s and defense lawyer’s mind. an innocent passenger? preposterous!

    1. Not only guilty – if they had caused a deadly accident the passenger would be guilty of murder in many jurisdictions. Even if the deadly crash did not directly involve their vehicle, but rather involved one of the chasing vehicles.

      A lot of it depends on the prosecutor – “I told him to stop” might get you some leniency, but then again it might not. Many prosecutors operate under the “I can get a jury to convict on this” decision tree.

  8. Signs you have an idiot for a lawyer? They make statements like this:

    “You can disable the car with the gun,” he said. “You can shoot the tires.”

  9. Guns are not the only deadly weapons. A high speed vehicle is a deadly weapon.

  10. The reason the pigs have the right to use deadly force is the driver was hitting speeds of 100 MPH to escape. By the license tag they knew who the driver was (or could have discovered who he was) and could have simply stopped chasing him. Not nearly as much fun for the pigs, but still a very good solution to the driver’s evil careening.

  11. I wasn’t aware that reckless driving was a justification for authorities to use deadly force.

    /The More You Know…

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