Why SCOTUS' 'qualified immunity' decision is huge for cops

At issue is whether the actions of the police shooting at the vehicle as it attempted to escape constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment

March 4, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Plumhoff v. Rickard, a case involving the 2004 fatal crash of a driver and his passenger after a high-speed police chase.

Survivors of the driver and passenger sued the individual police officers of West Memphis, Arkansas, the Chief of Police, and the Mayor under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court in the Western District of Tennessee.

At issue is whether the actions of the police shooting at the vehicle as it attempted to escape constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Incident and the Case
On July 18, 2004, West Memphis (Ark.) police stopped a white Honda Accord with only one operating headlight and an “indentation” in the windshield. Officer Joseph Forthman questioned the driver, Donald Rickard, and then asked him to step out of the car.

Instead, Rickard — with passenger Kelly Allen in the passenger seat — drove off. A police pursuit began — parts of which three police dash cameras recorded. Officer Vance Plumhoff became the lead vehicle in the chase.

Rickard entered the I-40 freeway, crossing from Arkansas into Memphis (Tenn.). During the chase, Rickard sped, veered, and tried to ram Officer Plumhoff’s vehicle and other cars. After exiting the freeway, Rickard hit one of the police cars, spun, and then (according to the police account) turned directly toward Officer Plumhoff’s car and collided head-on.

The officers attempted to box in the car with their police vehicles. Rickard reversed and hit another police car and nearly struck an officer. By this time some of the officers were out of their cars with their guns out and were ordering Rickard out of his car. Rickard did not comply and continued to try to drive away.

Three of the officers — including Officer Plumhoff — fired at the fleeing car. Rickard then lost control and crashed his car, killing both him and his passenger.

Ruling on the defendant officers’ motion for summary judgment — in which the court had to view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs — the trial court found that the facts established a Fourth Amendment violation.

The court concluded that the facts did not support a finding that a reasonable officer would have believed the driver’s continued flight presented a clear risk of danger to others. Accordingly, the court held that the police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity as to the § 1983 claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity.

Courts considering qualified immunity must engage in a two-step analysis:

1.) Does the officer’s conduct, as alleged, show a violation of a Constitutional right?

2.) If so, was that right clearly established at the time the violation occurred?

SCOTUS and Qualified Immunity
The Supreme Court decided a similar case involving claims of qualified immunity in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007). In that case, Deputy Scott, a Georgia sheriff’s deputy, ended a high-speed police chase by using his police vehicle to ram the suspect’s car, causing the car to crash and the suspect to suffer severe injuries. The suspect had been speeding and refused to pull over, leading police on a 10-mile high-speed chase of weaving, red light running, and forcing other cars off the road.

The chase was captured on a police video that the Court viewed and considered in reaching its decision that Deputy Scott did not violate the Constitution by ramming the suspect’s car. The Scott case was notable for the Court’s consideration of the videotape in its resolution of the factual issues regarding the chase:

[I]t is clear from the videotape that respondent [Harris] posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase… It is equally clear that [Deputy] Scott’s actions posed a high likelihood of serious injury or death to respondent…

Scott, 550 U.S. at 384. The Court stated that the Court of Appeals should have evaluated the facts in the light depicted by the video. The video was even linked to the Court’s opinion, a first for the Court.

In the opinion authored by Justice Scalia, the Court decided on the following rule: “A police officer’s attempt to terminate a 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.” Id. at 386.

As is the case in Plumhoff, in Scott the Court of Appeals had held that the law enforcement officer was not entitled to qualified immunity, setting up review of that issue by the Supreme Court. “Qualified immunity is ‘an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; and like an absolute immunity, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.’” Scott, 550 U.S. at 376 n.2. 

Interestingly, the actions in Plumhoff occurred in 2004, before the high court’s opinion in Scott in 2007 clarified and helped to establish the law in this area. Still, the Scott decision will likely provide a roadmap for the justices’ analysis of the issue of qualified immunity.

Every use of deadly force by the police is analyzed based on the actual circumstances. The Sixth Circuit in Plumhoff found that the officers’ use of deadly force was not reasonable against a “fleeing vehicle [that] was essentially stopped and surrounded by police officers and police cars” especially when the police were aware that there was a passenger in the suspect car, thus “doubling the risk of death.”

The appeals court thus distinguished the result in Scott, where the police used a vehicle to end the chase, and disapproved the police use of shots fired at close range under these specific circumstances. As the Court noted, “the devil is in the details.” Perhaps the Supreme Court’s review of the police videos will lead them to a different conclusion.

The United States has filed a brief in support of the police officers in Plumhoff, and the Solicitor General has requested leave of the Court to participate in the oral argument set for March 4, 2014, underscoring the importance of the outcome of this use of force decision for departments and law enforcement officers throughout the U.S.

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