By Zachery Lopes, 6/4/14
In a ruling which strongly affirms Graham v. Connor’s guidance on analyzing use of force under the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously found that Arkansas police officers did not use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they shot and killed a fleeing motorist, ending a high-speed car chase which risked the lives of both the officers and numerous innocent bystanders.
The Court’s May 27, 2014, ruling in Plumhoff, et al., v. Rickard, et al. (2015) 572 U.S. ___, further embeds the Graham v. Connor mandate: any analysis of force under the Fourth Amendment must be “viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
In July of 2004, driver Donald Rickard was stopped by a West Memphis, Arkansas Police Officer due to Rickard’s car having only one operating headlight. After Rickard refused to give up his driver’s license when asked, and the officer noticing Rickard’s nervous appearance and damage to the car consistent with vehicle theft, the officer ordered Rickard to step out of the vehicle. Rather than comply, Rickard sped away.
The ensuing pursuit, ultimately involving six police cruisers, lasted some five minutes, exceeded speeds of 100 mph, and came within close proximity to other motorists on the road, including “swerving through traffic at high speeds.” It was estimated that the pursuit blew by more than two dozen vehicles. Eventually, Rickard lost control of his vehicle, “spun out” into a parking lot, and collided with one of the pursuing officer’s vehicles. Now cornered, Rickard put his car into reverse in an attempt to escape, but collided with another officer’s vehicle. At that point, two officers got out of their cars and approached Rickard’s car, with one of the officers drawing his pistol and ordering Rickard to stop and get out while knocking on his passenger window. Once again, instead of complying, Rickard slammed on the accelerator in an apparent attempt to push through the sitting police cruiser blocking his car’s escape. At this point, one of the officers fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard then reversed in “a 180 degree arc,” narrowly avoiding a diving officer, and managed to maneuver onto a side street and began to speed away. Other officers on scene then fired twelve shots into the car. Rickard crashed shortly thereafter, and both he and his passenger died.
Rickard’s daughter filed a federal lawsuit against the shooting officers, among other defendants, alleging “excessive force” in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The daughter made two central arguments considered by the Court: first, the officers used excessive force by using deadly force to terminate the pursuit, and second, the officers used excessive force by firing fifteen shots in total to end the pursuit.
The District Court favored the daughter’s arguments, ruling that the defendant officers’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment, and also that they were not entitled to “qualified immunity,” as their conduct violated “clearly established” Fourth Amendment law. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed on both points.
The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting both of the daughter’s contentions and the lower courts’ rulings. Specifically, the Court made two rulings: first, none of the officers’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment, and second, even if it did, they were entitled to “qualified immunity.” The Court also engaged in an interesting discussion about Rickard’s passenger’s right to be free from unreasonable force under the Fourth Amendment.
Strongly affirming Graham v. Connor’s familiar Fourth Amendment analysis, the Court reiterated the rule that allegations of unreasonable force must be analyzed “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight…We thus allow for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Using this framework, the Court referred to the prior case of Scott v. Harris (2007) 550 U.S. 372, for support of its position that the officers’ use of deadly force here was reasonable. In Scott, the Court noted that where a suspect leads police on a car chase which poses “an actual and imminent threat” to bystanders, “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.”
In this case, the Court saw “no basis for reaching a different conclusion.” It noted that “Rickard’s outrageously reckless driving posed a grave public safety risk,” as it “exceeded 100 mph,” “lasted over five minutes,” and “passed more than two dozen other vehicles.” Further, the Court found that the chase was not “over” when Rickard was “cornered” in the parking lot, as he was still attempting to speed away, nearly hitting an officer: “[u]nder the circumstances at the moment when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable police officer could have concluded was that Rickard was intent on resuming his flight and that, if he was allowed to do so, he would once again pose a deadly threat for others on the road.” Thus, “it [was] beyond serious dispute that Rickard’s flight posed a grave public safety risk, and here, as in Scott, the police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk.”
As for the fifteen shots fired, “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.” This is exactly what occurred, as “during the 10-second span when all the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee.” Importantly, the Court did note that had the officers “initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated Rickard and had ended any threat of continued flight, or if Rickard had clearly given himself up,” it may have been a different result.
Finally, the Court found that the passenger’s presence in the car did not alter the analysis before it, because the passenger’s presence in the car “cannot enhance Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights….it would be perverse if his disregard for [the passenger’s] safety worked to his benefit.” That is, the passenger’s presence did not alter the analysis of any possible violation of Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights. This is because “Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights which…may not be vicariously asserted.” However, “if a suit were brought on behalf of [the passenger],” under the Fourth Amendment or state tort law, the analysis would focus on the officer’s actions in relation to his right to be free from unreasonable force. Unfortunately, the Court did not elaborate much further on this point. The Court here may be flagging an undeveloped area of Fourth Amendment law, and one to watch for in future cases.
However, as it stands now, such an ambiguous question about a fleeing passenger’s rights should still be viewed by the Courts “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”