Deadly force may be used if the driver poses a grave public safety risk
Overview: The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that officers did not violate a suspect’s Fourth or Fourteenth amendment rights when they opted to use deadly force to stop a dangerous high-speed car chase. In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Court found the officers’ actions were reasonable based on the reckless nature of the suspect’s actions. During the course of the pursuit, the suspect attempted to strike officers with the vehicle, which resulted in the officers firing at the suspect. The Court determined the suspect’s actions posed a grave public safety risk to innocent bystanders.
Training Points: The Plumhoff case confirms that, when officers are involved in a high-speed pursuit with a reckless driver, deadly force may be used to end the chase if facts can be articulated that demonstrate the driver poses a grave public safety risk.
The Plumhoff decision also provides officers with guidance and considerations when determining whether deadly force will be considered reasonable. Those factors include, but are not limited to:
speeds reached during the chase
aggressive driving tactics/actions
the suspect’s repeated and continued attempts to flee
the number of vehicles the suspect passes
and, most importantly, how the suspect’s driving actions affect other drivers
It is imperative law enforcement officials continue to follow their departments’ policies on high-speed pursuits.
Summary Analysis: In Plumhoff v. Rickard, defendant Rickard led police officers on a high-speed car chase for five minutes — swerving through traffic, passing more than two dozen cars that were forced to alter course, and reaching speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Rickard spun out in a parking lot and came to rest momentarily, but almost immediately began to accelerate and spin his tires — despite the fact his vehicle was flush with a patrol car. An officer fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard attempted to drive away, almost hitting an officer in the process. As Rickard sped away, two officers fired 12 shots at Rickard, causing him to lose control and crash into a building. Both he and his passenger died from a combination of the gunshot wounds and injuries suffered in the crash. Rickard’s daughter filed suit alleging officers used excessive force in violation of Rickard’s Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights. Both the lower district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity and found their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment, finding their actions were contrary to established law at the time of the shooting.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the officers did not violate Rickard’s Fourth or Fourteenth amendment rights and, instead, acted reasonably in using deadly force. The Court found if the officers permitted Rickard to flee, he would have continued to pose a grave public safety risk to bystanders. The Court also found the 15 shots fired were reasonable and permissible since Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee and because “officers who are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.” Finally, the Court held that, even if the officers’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment, they would nonetheless be entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established statutory or constitutional right that precluded the officers’ conduct at the time in question.