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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.

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  • LiveFreeOrDOH!||

    I would be VERY surprised if it even makes it to a hearing at the SCOTUS. Unfortunate.

  • mikheil||

    If all options are allowed on table why not allow drones to selectively take out the fleeing vehicle? This would keep the officers safe... I can here that argument coming soon from leos

  • gimmeasammich||

    Whatever lets them make it home safely at night...

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    Recently I heard about proposals in the UK to allow cops to disable cars that were out of line, and I thought, maybe we just need to outfit cops with kill switches, so when they go rogue, we can just shut them down.

    Looks like the officer is getting ready to shoot someone's dog, then OFF! And the cop slumps down and waits to be reactivated. Seems like a good idea to me.

  • ||

    Not the UK - the EU.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    As the officers’ main brief puts it, “[t]he only recourse some officers have in some situations: shooting to disable the threat.”

    Suicide is never the answer.

  • Free Society||

    I see what you did there

  • ||

    Well, there's always walking away.

    21 years in the Navy I had to listen to that bullshit - just walk away from confrontation. If you defend yourself you're just as guilty. If its good enough for the military then that should be good enough for the paramilitary.

  • Free Society||

    Judging by the Court’s precedent and its current disposition, this case appears to be a winner for law enforcement the boot currently residing up your ass.
  • Jerryskids||

    It strikes me as odd that at the same time that many police departments are ending high-speed pursuits as too dangerous (unless the suspect is presumed to be armed and dangerous and/or wanted on felony charges) this police department is arguing that it is proper to end high-speed pursuits by means of summarily executing the fleeing suspect and any passengers he may happen to have along for the ride. I can't see any problem with that. If the Supremes overturn the lower courts, is this going to open the door to executing suspects that the cops aver they reasonably suspect of intending to flee? If you get lit up by a cruiser and don't immediately pull over, turn off your vehicle and throw the keys out the window, are you liable to get shot?

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    This case is somewhat different from the 2007 case due to the death of the passenger, who was not guilty of anything. Dollars to donuts the Rickard dude had a warrant out on him or contraband in the car, which is why he sped off. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over his demise. But, the passenger is another matter.

  • Kevin47||

    Yeah, he might have had a beer, or marijuana! Good thing he's dead.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because a warrant justifies being killed. My goodness you're a despicable human being.

    I sincerely hope that the next time you get pulled over, the cop notices your concealed weapon before you have a chance to tell them you've got a permit, gets all excited, and fill you with bullet holes.

    And nothing else happens.

  • MJBinAL||

    Ok, so police are going to kill you anyway because they can, so you might as well take as many of them as possible with you.

    See how this works?

  • Kevin47||

    There is no excuse for giving chase when a non-violent suspect flees. You have the license plate information, so pursue an investigation instead of jeopardizing the innocent. The notion that fleeing a police officer is the worst crime in existence is absurd.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    Exactly ! just get the assailants info, execute a "no-knock" search warrant at the person's home during the middle of the night, shoot the family dog, ricochets are fine, and kill the person then.

    I don't understand why police can't delay gratification for a few hours and kill the family pet in the process.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Yeah, then you can put out another arrest warrant in addition to the one he's fled from. That should help.

  • sarcasmic||

    Not all arrest warrants are equal. Some are for murder. Others are for forgetting to pay a ticket.

    But to you they all deserve death, right?

  • ||

    Howdy there, Tulpa. Good to see you're still a disingenuous asshole.

  • ||

    Wow, extra points for presumption of guilt; who said anything about a warrant?

    If the police suspect I might be Chris Dorner because I'm white and I flee, they're justified in shooting me?

  • thorsmjollnir||

    What if the vehicle is stolen and the driver stole the vehicle and is fleeing because he is on the run for murder?

  • larry hammond||

    If LEO's were only focused on actual crimes (assault, theft, fraud, etc.) and not trying to bust everyone they see for drug and traffic related issues they would have time to do their job correctly. As it stands they are overwhelmed by the number of "opportunities" to "enforce the law" so must handle each transaction efficiently. If that means that innocent people die, well that is the price of police "efficiency".

  • DenverJay||

    Look, I am no fan of the police, definitely not. And I think the police have no right to shoot a guy for "contempt of cop".
    But I disagree that traffic issues are unimportant uses of police resources. Traffic fatalities are one of the leading causes of death. I drive many miles per week, most on the interstate, and I take irresponsible driving very personally. There is a construction zone I have to go through, and I resent the selfish SOBs who feel that they have a right to endanger my life, just because they don't want to slow down for a few miles. I mean, it really pisses me off, and I have every right to feel that way. Driving like that is dangerous, and I could care less if they kill themselves in a pile of twisted metal, but these people endanger everyone else on the road.

  • daniwitz13||

    This is a travesty and shows how clueless the High Court is on this Matter. The issue is NOT qualified Immunity at all. Or what they can do or not do while chasing. Whether they can shoot or not shoot. All this should NOT be in this equation at all. WHY? It is unconstitutional (or should well be) to "high speed chase" anyone. The chances of injuring someone is so great, it is jeopardizing the pubic and everyone that is involved. By 'chasing' it deprives the general public of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness by putting it is harms way. The way that it is now, the Police is saying that even if it kills a whole Family, it was worth catching someone with a defective head light. This defies logic on a grand scale and the Justices are concerning themselves with the tragic end product. Many here will say, "are you just going to let him get away?" I say YES. It is not worth the lives of others for a tail light or anything else similar. A traffic infraction is not a life and death situation. Think of other ways to catch, instead of "chase" It is flat out wrong to "chase". Pity

  • AlgerHiss||

    This entire issue of "immunity" and its various levels needs to be re-engineered.

    No cop or DA should ever, under any circumstance, have immunity that the average citizen does not have.

  • ||

    When was the last time the SCOTUS passed up an opportunity to lick the sweaty taint of the boys in blue?

  • epicurus||

    Tennessee v. Garner (1985) pretty well addresses this issue. Seemingly easily addressed by any 1st year law student. The argument of the police clearly hinges on the danger of the fleeing suspect, however, it would seem that even the most obtuse jurist would see that the danger in this case is created by the chase itself.

  • epicurus||

    What is particularly interesting is that Tennessee v. Garner was out of Memphis, Tennessee just across the river from West Memphis, Arkansas. Thirty years later these slack-jawed, hillbilly, boys in blue are still fighting for their "right" to murder with impunity (or immunity as the case may be.)

  • ThinkThrice||

    Although they may have saved lives - If you take a life, it should be over something so important that you should be prepared to lose your life for it and so accept the peoples judgment...even if you're a police officer.

    The risk of allowing this is the possibility of police killing people at will. The supreme court - our final check on law enforcement - will easily strike this down. It will probably cost more lives in the long run but is the right thing to do to protect the liberty of the people.

  • joebanana||

    Nobody has the "power" to grant "immunity" to anybody. Where in the constitution does it grant the power to ANYBODY to use "deadly force"? It grants due process, and a fair trial, NOT deadly force. So what is the stupreme court wasting time on this non-issue for? The same goes for drone strikes. Police in this country killed more American's than the Iraqi war has since 2003.

  • cheap kits||

    As the officers’ main brief puts it, “[t]he only recourse some officers have in some situations: shooting to disable the threat.”

    Suicide is never the answer.Yeah, god never forgive those people

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