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Police chase case raises concerns among defense attorneys

By: Kimberly Atkins , Dolan Media Newswires//June 3, 2014

Police chase case raises concerns among defense attorneys

By: Kimberly Atkins , Dolan Media Newswires//June 3, 2014//

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by shooting more than a dozen rounds into the car of a fleeing unarmed suspect is making defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates uneasy.

The decision in Plumhoff v. Rickard, No 12-1117, nixed a civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of a man who led police on a high speed chase across state lines which ended in a hail of bullets and a crash that took the lives of both the driver and his passenger.

“It encourages police to shoot very quickly and with a lot of bullets,” said John W. Whitehead, an attorney and president of the Charlottesville, Virginia-based civil liberties organization the Rutherford Institute. “This is a very scary thing.”

But supporters of the ruling say that the Supreme Court broke no new ground, reaffirming past precedent that gives police the authority to use lethal force when officers and members of the public are at risk from a potentially deadly threat.

“If a person behaves in the manner that creates a great risk of death or great bodily injury, they have to expect that the police will use deadly force,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California.

Routine stop gone wrong

The case stems from a traffic stop after police spotted a car with a broken headlight. The driver, Donald Rickard, initially pulled into a gas station parking lot where he was questioned by police and ordered out of the vehicle. Instead, Rickard fled, leading police on a high-speed chase from Arkansas to Tennessee.

At one point during the chase, which was recorded by a police dashboard camera, Rickard’s car collided with a police cruiser and stopped. Police surrounded the car with other vehicles, and officers approached with guns drawn. But Rickard continued to attempt to flee, throwing his car into reverse and nearly hitting one officer as he headed back to the road. Several officers fired more than a dozen shots into the vehicle. Seconds later, Rickard apparently lost control and crashed head on into a house.

Both Rickard and front seat passenger Kelly Allen died as a result of gunshot wounds and the crash. Neither was armed.

Rickard’s family brought a §1983 civil rights lawsuit against the officers, alleging excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity.

A U.S. District Court denied the motion and the officers appealed, arguing that their actions were not unconstitutional, and that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they had not violated any clearly established law.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted the officers’ petition for certiorari.

After determining that the appeals court had jurisdiction to consider the case, the Supreme Court held that the police’s actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard.

Citing its 2007 ruling in Scott v. Harris holding that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he rammed a fleeing suspect’s car with his police vehicle to stop a car chase, the court stated, “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.”

“We see no basis for reaching a different conclusion here,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. The court was unanimous in its judgment, although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer declined to join certain parts of the opinion’s rationale.

Justice Alito said that Rickard’s actions put members of the public at severe risk of injury or death, and that the use of deadly force was justified, as was the firing of multiple rounds into Rickard’s car.

“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,” Justice Alito wrote.

‘The difficulties of qualified immunity’

Alito went on to hold that regardless of the constitutional analysis, the officers here would be entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

This part of the ruling adds to the difficulty in determining what conduct might be deemed within clearly established law and entitled to immunity, and what falls outside such limits, attorneys say. And some rulings by state and federal courts are at odds with the Supreme Court’s approach.

For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1989 in Dobos v. Driscoll that a police supervisor was not entitled to qualified immunity in a case arising from the misconduct of his subordinate where the supervisor had notice of the subordinate officer’s past culpable conduct.

Whitehead said the Supreme Court is taking a more police-friendly approach to claims of misconduct and qualified immunity. That, coupled with “increasing more aggressive” training techniques by police, encroaches on the Fourth Amendment’s protections, he said.

Whitehead suggested that lesser displays of police force, such as shooting out tires, can often “diffuse a situation” without leading to the death of suspects and passengers. Similar arguments were offered by attorneys representing Rickard’s family at oral arguments.

But Scheidegger disagreed. “Shooting out tires is a solution offered by someone who watches too much television,” he said.

It’s unclear how much the video from the dashboard camera swayed the justices, but attorneys say such videos can be a crucial element in these types of claims.

“I think video is a good idea for law enforcement,” Scheidegger said. “After all, what the video shows is often much better than the verbal description of how dire the situation was and how quickly police had to act.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: [email protected]


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