US Supreme Court Holds 15 Shots Fired in High-Speed Chase Constitutional

On May 27th, 2014, the US Supreme Court held in a police brutality suit that the officers who fired 15 shots at a driver during a temporary lull in a high-speeed chase did not violate the US Constitution.

In Plumhoff v Rickard, Docket No. 12-1117, the US Supreme Court addressed an appeal in a civil suit that alleged that the police violated a driver's constitutional rights by shooting him dead in the midst of a high-speed car chase.

From the opinion's syllabus:

"Donald Rickard led police officers on a high-speed car chase that came to a temporary halt when Rickard spun out into a parking lot. Rickard resumed maneuvering his car, and as he continued to use the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a patrol car, an officer fired three shots into Rickard's car. Rickard managed to drive away, almost hitting an officer in the process. Officers fired 12 more shots as Rickard sped away, striking him and his passenger, both of whom died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered when the car eventually crashed.

Respondent, Rickard's minor daughter, filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 action, alleging that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied the officers' motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, holding that their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and was contrary to clearly established law at the time in question. After finding that it had appellate jurisdiction, the Sixth Circuit held that the officers' conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. It affirmed the District Court's order, suggesting that it agreed that the officers violated clearly established law.

Held:

1. The Sixth Circuit properly exercised jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1291 , which gives courts of appeals jurisdiction to hear appeals from [']final decisions['] of the district courts. The general rule that an order denying a summary judgment motion is not a "final decision[n]," and thus not immediately appealable, does not apply when it is based on a qualified immunity claim. Johnson v. Jones515 U.S. 304 , 311. Respondent argues that Johnson forecloses appellate jurisdiction here, but the order in Johnson was not immediately appealable because it merely decided [']a question of 'evidence sufficiency,'[']  id., at 313, while here, petitioners' qualified immunity claims raise legal issues quite different from any purely factual issues that might be confronted at trial. Deciding such legal issues is a core responsibility of appellate courts and does not create an undue burden for them. See, e.g., Scott v. Harris550 U.S. 372.

2. The officers' conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

 (a) Addressing this question first will be [']beneficial['] in [']develop[ing] constitutional precedent['] in an area that courts typically consider in cases in which the defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense, Pearson v. Callahan555 U.S. 223236.

(b) Respondent's excessive-force argument requires analyzing the totality of the circumstances from the perspective [']of a reasonable officer on the scene.['] Graham v. Connor490 U.S. 386 , 396 . Respondent contends that the Fourth Amendment did not allow the officers to use deadly force to terminate the chase, and that, even if they were permitted to fire their weapons, they went too far when they fired as many rounds as they did.

(1) The officers acted reasonably in using deadly force. 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, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death." Scott, supra, at 385 . Rickard's outrageously reckless driving-which lasted more than five minutes, exceeded 100 miles per hour, and included the passing of more than two dozen other motorists-posed a grave public safety risk, and the record conclusively disproves that the chase was over when Rickard's car came to a temporary standstill and officers began shooting. Under the circumstances when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable officer could have concluded from Rickard's conduct was that he was intent on resuming his flight, which would again pose a threat to others on the road.

(2) Petitioners did not fire more shots than necessary to end the public safety risk. It makes sense that, if officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, they need not stop shooting until the threat has ended. Here, during the 10-second span when all the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee and eventually managed to drive away. A passenger's presence does not bear on whether officers violated Rickard's Fourth Amendment rights, which [']are personal rights [that] may not be vicariously asserted.['] Alderman v. United States394 U.S. 165 , 174 .

3. Even if the officers' conduct had violated the Fourth Amendment , petitioners would still be entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity. An official sued under §1983 is entitled to qualified immunity unless it is shown that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was ['] 'clearly established' ['] at the time of the challenged conduct. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd563 U.S. ___ , ___ . Brosseau v. Haugen543 U.S. 194201 , where an officer shot at a fleeing vehicle to prevent possible harm, makes plain that no clearly established law precluded the officer's conduct there. Thus, to prevail, respondent must meaningfully distinguish Brosseau or point to any [']controlling authority['] or [']robust 'consensus of cases of persuasive authority,' ['] al-Kidd supra, at ___ , that emerged between the events there and those here that would alter the qualified-immunity analysis. Respondent has made neither showing. If anything, the facts here are more favorable to the officers than the facts in Brosseau; and respondent points to no cases that could be said to have clearly established the unconstitutionality of using lethal force to end a high-speed car chase."