Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Police shooting justified in high-speed chase

Reading the facts in this case, you know the Supreme Court is not going to let the police stand trial on the excessive force claims against then. The plaintiffs sue on behalf of their deceased son who led the police on a wild car chase before they shot and killed him when they thought he was going to resume the chase and place more people at risk.

The case is Plumhoff v. Rickard, decided on May 27. Justice Alito summarizes the nature of the car chase. It's not pretty. After the police pulled him over, Rickard took off like a bat out of hell, driving at astonishing speeds and narrowly missing numerous accidents by the grace of God. When the chase ended, it looked as if Rickard was going to make another run for it, the officers fired 12 more shots at Rickard, killing him and his passenger. The family sues under the Fourth Amendment for excessive force.

Excessive force cases are hard enough to win. The police are allowed to use their best judgment in tough situations, and judges are not going to rule against the police on the basis of 20/20 hindsight. The cases are even harder to win in high-speed chases. In 2007, the Court said that 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." That describes this case. Rickard was driving more than 100 miles per hour, passing more than two dozen vehicles, several of which had to swerve out of the way. When the chase finally stopped, Rickard began spinning his wheels and threw the car into reverse. A reasonable officer would have concluded that Rickard was going to resume the chase. The deadly force was therefore reasonable, the Court unanimously says.

The officers did fire a total of 15 shots. The plaintiffs say that was excessive in and of itself. Not so, the Court says. "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." During the 10-second period when the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee. The police did what they had to do. "This would be a different case if [the police] had 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. But that is not what happened," the Court says.

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