SCOTUS, the Fourth Amendment, and dangerous vehicle pursuits

It is no longer just the threat to officers’ lives that must be evaluated in high-speed pursuits but also the threat the fleeing driver poses to civilians

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a very dangerous high-speed pursuit case, Scott v. Harris. A deputy attempted to stop Victor Harris for traveling at 73 miles per hour in a 55 zone. Harris refused to yield and began traveling down a two-lane road at speeds in excess of 85 miles per hour.

The chase was captured on video. During the pursuit, Harris attempted to evade officers by pulling into a shopping center parking lot. The officers attempted to box him in but Harris collided with a deputy’s vehicle and escaped.

Harris continued his excessive speed and Deputy Timothy Scott implemented the so-called Precision Intervention Technique (PIT) in an attempt to bring the chase to a halt. The maneuver is designed to tap a fleeing vehicle on the corner of its rear bumper to cause the vehicle to come to a spinning stop. During implementation of the PIT maneuver, Harris’ vehicle ran down an embankment, overturned and crashed. Harris was badly injured and became a quadriplegic.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a second dangerous high-speed pursuit case, Plumhoff v. Rickard. In Plumhoff, the driver of a vehicle, Donald Rickard, and his female passenger were stopped by a West Memphis (Ark.) police officer for driving with only one headlight.

Rickard suddenly drove off and a multi-car police pursuit followed. The chase was captured on several police vehicle video cameras. During the pursuit, Rickard drove at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour and passed more than two dozen other vehicles.

Eventually, Rickard’s vehicle spun out and collided with a cruiser. His front bumper made contact with another police vehicle that blocked him from moving forward. At this point, the wheels on Rickard’s car were spinning and his car was rocking back and forth. He was using his accelerator in an effort to break free even though his front bumper was flush against the front of a police cruiser.

One officer approached on foot and attempted to open Rickard’s door without success. At that time, Officer Vance Plumhoff fired three shots into Rickard’s vehicle. Rickard placed the car in reverse and almost struck an officer in the process. He placed the car in drive and began to move forward. Officer John Gardner fired 10 shots at the moving vehicle, first from the passenger side and then from the rear as it proceeded forward. A third officer also fired two shots. A total of 15 shots were fired at Rickard’s vehicle during the encounter. Twelve rounds hit Rickard and two hit the female, killing them both.

The decision of the Supreme Court in both cases was 8-1 in favor of the officer defendants. In both cases, the justices made several important observations. 

First, in Scott v. Harris

•    In deciding whether an officer is entitled to victory based upon qualified immunity, even in cases where there is a material fact dispute, the case will be dismissed in favor of the officer when there is clear video tape evidence that supports the officer’s factual assertions and the officer is shown to have acted reasonably.
•    In deciding the efficacy of a police high-speed pursuit, it is appropriate for the court to focus on the culpability of the reckless driver.
•    The Supreme Court observed that Harris intentionally placed himself, the pursuing officers and the public in grave danger by his reckless, high-speed flight.
•    The Supreme Court refused to fashion a rule requiring law enforcement officers to abandon pursuit of fleeing suspects whenever they drive so recklessly that they place the lives of the public in danger.
•    The Supreme Court concluded by stating, “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.”

Second, in Plumhoff v. Rickard

•    The Supreme Court observed, “At the moment when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable 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.”
•    The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that officers used reasonable force when they fired a total of 15 shots into Rickard’s vehicle, striking him 12 times and killing him.
•    The Court also observed, “If police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officer need not stop shooting until the threat is ended.”

These cases highlight the importance that the Supreme Court places on the extreme threat to public safety posed by drivers when they abandon common sense and drive recklessly on the public thoroughfares of America. It is no longer the threat to officers’ lives that must be evaluated in high-speed pursuits, but also the threat posed to innocent drivers, pedestrians, and others.

The Supreme Court also made the point in both cases that it will not be the entity to forbid police vehicle pursuits and reward reckless drivers who choose to flee at high speeds when confronted by law enforcement.

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