A new Supreme Court decision has been added to the ongoing controversy in law enforcement circles about whether officers should be permitted by policy to shoot at moving vehicles. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that officers were justified in firing fatal rounds at a driver to end a dangerous high-speed chase. Further, the court declared, the officers were not guilty of excessive force for sending a fusillade at the offender’s vehicle — 15 shots in all.
“The Supreme Court is making it clear that the Fourth amendment allows the use of deadly force to stop drivers in those exceptional cases when their actions pose a very serious threat to public safety,” says police attorney Bill Everett, a legal consultant to the Force Science Institute. “By limiting legal liability in these circumstances, the Court is allowing agencies to put more emphasis on keeping the public safe when developing their policies.”
A summary of this case (Plumhoff v. Rickard) and the decision in full can be read by clicking here. Here’s the essence of the matter:
The case began, the Court’s decision explains, near midnight on a hot July night in 2004 when a lieutenant with the West Memphis (AR) PD pulled over a white Honda Accord “because the car had only one operating headlight.” Closer contact revealed that the windshield bore an indentation “roughly the size of a head,” as if the vehicle had struck a pedestrian.
The nervous driver denied any recent drinking but failed to produce a driver’s license. When the lieutenant asked him to step out of the car, he sped away instead. Quickly, the lieutenant was joined in hot pursuit by a phalanx of five other squad cars as the suspect, with a front-seat passenger, headed on Interstate 40 for a bridge that spans the Mississippi River into Memphis, TN.
An attempt at a “rolling roadblock” proved unsuccessful. Undeterred, the driver swerved through traffic at speeds over 100 mph, passing more than two dozen vehicles.
Across the bridge, he exited onto a Memphis street and shortly made a sudden right turn, colliding with one of the chase squads closing in. The Honda “spun out into a parking lot” and there crashed into another cruiser. “Now in danger of being cornered,” the suspect slammed his car into reverse “in an attempt to escape.”
An officer and a sergeant exited their units and ran to the vehicle. “Gun in hand,” the sergeant “pounded on the passenger-side window.” Desperation mounting, the suspect steered into yet another police car. With his bumper “flush against a cruiser,” he tromped on the accelerator, spinning tires and rocking his car back and forth, trying to break free.
“At that point,” the Court recounts, the sergeant “fired three shots into [the suspect’s] car.” Undaunted, the driver “reversed in a 180-degree arc” and “maneuvered onto” another street, nearly striking another officer on foot in the process.
As the suspect continued “fleeing down” the street, two other officers now fired 12 shots toward the Honda, striking the driver and his passenger. The driver “lost control of the car and crashed into a building.” Both he and his passenger, in the Court’s words, “died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered in the crash that ended the chase.”
The pursuit had lasted “more than five minutes.” All the shots were fired within a span of 10 seconds.
A 1983 action was brought in federal court on behalf of the dead driver’s minor daughter, alleging excessive force that violated the suspect’s constitutional rights. The six West Memphis officers involved in the chase (including the three who fired shots), their chief, and the town’s mayor were named as defendants.
Specifically, the civil suit contended that the 4th 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.”
The district court agreed with the plaintiff. It denied a defense motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, holding that “the officers’ conduct...was contrary to law that was clearly established” at the time of the shootings. An appellate panel affirmed this decision.
The Supreme Court Justices, however, unanimously struck down these findings.
First the Court’s decision notes that 4th Amendment claims must be analyzed in accordance with its landmark Graham v. Connor decision; i.e., with the “totality of the circumstances” considered from the perspective of “a reasonable officer on the scene.”
Then the Court points out that in a previous case in 2007 it held 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.”
The Court concludes there’s no reason to depart from that precedent. In the case at hand, the suspect’s “outrageously reckless driving posed a grave public safety risk,” says the decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito Jr.
Collision with police vehicles may have brought the pursuit “temporarily to a near standstill, [but] that did not end the chase.... [A]t the moment when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable police officer could have concluded was that [the driver] 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.... [T]he police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk.”
As for the lawsuit’s claim that 15 shots were too many, the Court says: “We reject that argument. 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 brief span when all the shots were fired, the suspect “never abandoned his attempt to flee. Indeed, even after all the shots had been fired, he managed...to continue driving until he crashed.
“This would be a different case if [officers] had initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated [the suspect] and had ended any threat of continued flight, or if [he] had clearly given himself up. But that is not what happened.”
Given the circumstances and the absence of any compelling prior cases that proscribe firing at a vehicle to terminate a dangerous car chase, the Court ruled that the accused parties were fully entitled to qualified immunity in the shooting “because they violated no clearly established law.”
Atty. Everett told Force Science News: “One of the startling — and welcome — aspects of this opinion doesn’t have so much to do with pursuits as it does with deadly force in general.
“The Court flatly rejected the plaintiffs’ tactic of using the number of rounds fired to make a good decision look bad. The opinion doesn’t mince words: Officers are justified, the Court says, in continuing to use deadly force until the threat has been stopped.
“This should give officers more confidence that their training will hold up in court, and should also give a lot of would-be plaintiffs serious pause when considering certain lawsuits.”
“In this case,” notes FSI’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski, “the circumstances were relatively straightforward. The Supreme Court determined that the suspect vehicle and its driver posed a clear threat and shooting to end that threat was both practical and appropriate.
“However, in a broader context, including situations in which vehicles are used as assault weapons against officers, shooting at a moving vehicle can become a more complex issue. Then a myriad of behavioral science factors may come into play, including speed and distance calculations, changing trajectories, unconsciously altered perceptions of threat, psychophysiological and perceptual phenomena like “looming,” and so on.
“Confronted with contradictory forensic evidence, officers may find themselves challenged to articulate why they believed a high level of threat existed when, in fact, the actual threat seems to have been much lower. They may be puzzled as to why rounds they insist were fired directly at a car bearing down on them ended up suspiciously impacting in a remote part of the vehicle.
“The dynamics involved in shooting at moving vehicles affect policy makers, trainers, street officers, investigators, force reviewers, and legal representatives alike. All need to understand the sometimes surprising nuances of human behavior under stress in these high-intensity circumstances.”
A near-term goal of Force Science, Lewinski says, is to thoroughly explore this area for law enforcement. Currently in discussion are groundbreaking research projects and instructional courses that will “help to unravel the perplexities of this issue and will equip all those involved to make better decisions.”
FSN will report more details as these future plans take shape.