U.S. Supreme Court

Cops who shot and killed fleeing driver didn't violate the Fourth Amendment, SCOTUS rules

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Police officers from West Memphis, Arkansas, didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment when they shot a fleeing driver to end a high-speed chase, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The driver, Donald Rickard, was killed along with his passenger, Kelly Allen. Rickard’s surviving daughter sued for alleged Fourth Amendment violations.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion (PDF) for the court. “It is beyond serious dispute that Rickard’s flight posed a grave public safety risk,” Alito wrote. “The police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk.”

Officers fired 15 shots at Rickard’s vehicle during the July 2004 chase in which the cars reached speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. After Rickard collided with three police cruisers, two of them in a parking lot, a police officer fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard drove away, nearly missing an officer, and two other officers fired 12 more shots at the vehicle.

Rickard’s daughter had contended the police officers violated the Constitution by using deadly force to stop the chase. Even if the officers were allowed to fire, she contended, the number of shots fired was excessive.

Eight justices (all except for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) agreed that the initial use of deadly force did not violate the Fourth Amendment, while seven justices (all except for Ginsburg and Justice Stephen G. Breyer Jr.) agreed that the firing of 15 shots by police did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court was unanimous in holding that the officers were protected from suit because of qualified immunity.

The chase started after a police officer pulled over Rickard’s Accord because it had only one headlight. Police noticed an indentation in the windshield and asked Rickard if he had been drinking. Rickard said he had not. The officer asked Rickard to get out of his car because he appeared nervous and was unable to produce a driver’s license. It was at that point that Rickard sped away.

The chase was not over when the first shots were fired, Alito said, because Rickard was accelerating as his car was pressed against a police vehicle. Under the circumstances, it was reasonable to conclude that Rickard was ready to resume flight, once again posing a safety risk.

After the initial shots were fired, Rickard was still trying to flee, according to Alito. “It stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended,” Alito said.

The presence of a car passenger does not change the calculus, Alito added, because the plaintiff is asserting only Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights. “It would be perverse,” Alito wrote, “if his disregard for Allen’s safety worked to his benefit.”

The case is Plumhoff v. Rickard.

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