SCOTUS: Police Can Shoot Someone in a High-Speed Chase


The Supreme Court says that a police-inflicted death penalty for someone who leads police on a high-speed chase is justified. It was a unanimous decision. It’s the law in many cases that police can use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect , but that’s usually limited to someone who has committed a forcible felony. Pennsylvania’s law, for instance, is the following:

However, he is justified in using deadly force only when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or such other person, or when he believes both that:

(i)  such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape; and

(ii)  the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay.

You can read more about the case over at Scotusblog. What concerns me is that the high speed chase started when the driver got pulled over for a broken headlight. This wasn’t the case of a fleeing and dangerous felon. The passenger in the car was killed as well, but her claims weren’t at issue in this case; the Court only ruled about whether the driver’s rights were violated. I would hope the passenger would have a claim.

16 thoughts on “SCOTUS: Police Can Shoot Someone in a High-Speed Chase”

  1. The issue is the flight was in effect the forcible felony. So while the tail light was out, the flight and subsequent high speed chase created the imminent threat of harm justifying the use of force.

    The passenger in the car was killed as well, but her claims weren’t at issue in this case; the Court only ruled about whether the driver’s rights were violated.

    I am not so sure about that. I only briefly skimmed it so by no means is this a well informed statement, but it appeared they would hold she was SOL being his passenger. The facts were the car had stopped a few times and I suspect they will claim she could have gotten out. It was the sense I got from it.

    1. If this is true, then any failure to bey a cop becomes a forcible felony that you can then be summarily executed for. So let’s say that you are filming a cop that is beating up a suspect. The cop orders you to hand over the camera, and you refuse. He now has the power to kill you.
      All of the pieces are now in place. The police state is now in place.

      1. No, the flight and high speed chase created the imminent harm. Not that simple disobedience is enough to justify the force. Not that I think the unanimous nature of this ruling is likely to change things for the better, but I never said what you took from it.

        1. I dunno but call me crazy, but couldn’t have they just let the guy go and then run his license, get his address and then arrest him? If police had just broken off the chase, the dangerous situation would have been resolved without the requirement of executing two people. I know, that’s just crazy talk.

        2. No, the flight and high speed chase created the imminent harm.

          The problem I have is that this is a 180 degree reversal of the recent trend in policing* of breaking off a pursuit if it becomes too dangerous. Now, they can just execute you and any of your passengers, instead.

          The modern militarization of police is getting more and more frightening. It’s even getting into the more rural areas of the country – our local sheriff actually referred to local LEO’s as “troops” in a TV interview (for added creepiness, it was an interview about the department’s new .gov-surplus MRAP).

          * Real policing, of the Peelian kind. Not the militarized thug policing that has become disturbingly common.

          1. I agree about the policy reversal and the militarization of the police, these are disturbing and dangerous trend.

            That being the case, referring to colleagues as “troops” is very common and more likely than not unrelated. My boss calls us troops on occasion, and I am a software developer. We also frequently use the phrase “hold down the fort,” but it doesn’t mean we’re literally fortifying the office and preparing for an attack by Indians.

            1. It may have been just a slip of the tongue, sure. But honestly, that’s one way of referring to his employees that any chief LEO should avoid like the plague – if nothing else, to avoid encouraging that militaristic mindset in his deputies. Innocent or not, it’s disturbing that it came out of his mouth at all, and especially on television, no matter what the reason.

              It’s one thing for a supervisor to say it in a private group conversation, or a start-of-shift briefing, and another thing entirely for the sheriff himself to say it as part of a television interview about his shiny new war-zone transport.

          2. Okay, given the information others have brought up, I will retract the “Now, they can just execute you and any of your passengers, instead.” part of my comment. At the point the first shots were fired, they seem justifiable.

            The news article apparently downplayed the aggressiveness of his actions at the time of the shooting (and I should know better than to trust the MSM, even if all they said was “water is wet”), but I wasn’t in a position to read the actual decision, earlier. Mea culpa.

      2. No, because the guy was gunning the accelerator while ramming a police car, after he had already disengaged from the last police car he hit, after a chase in excess of 100mph.

        The fleeing driver was, by his own actions, endangering the lives of everyone on the road. he had already established that he was willing to hurt – or even kill – anyone who got in his way. He even attempted to run one officer down.

        From the holding in the decision:


        (1) The officers acted reasonably in using deadly force. 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.” Scott, supra, at 385 . Rickard’s outrageously reckless driving-which lasted more than five minutes, exceeded 100 miles per hour, and included the passing of more than two dozen other motorists-posed a grave public safety risk, and the record conclusively disproves that the chase was over when Rickard’s car came to a temporary standstill and officers began shooting. Under the circumstances when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable officer could have concluded from Rickard’s conduct was that he was intent on resuming his flight, which would again pose a threat to others on the road. Pp. 9-11.

        (2) Petitioners did not fire more shots than necessary to end the public safety risk. It makes sense that, if officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, they need not stop shooting until the threat has ended. Here, during the 10-second span when all the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee and eventually managed to drive away. A passenger’s presence does not bear on whether officers violated Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights, which “are personal rights [that] may not be vicariously asserted.” Alderman v. United States, 394 U.S. 165 , 174 . Pp. 11-12.

        From the opinion:

        Rickard eventually exited I-40 in Memphis, and shortly afterward he made “a quick right turn,” causing “contact [to] occu[r]” between his car and Evans’ cruiser. [2011 BL 14933], 2011 WL 197426 , *3. As a result of that contact, Rickard’s car spun out into a parking lot and collided with Plumhoff’s cruiser. Now in danger of being cornered, Rickard put his car into reverse “in an attempt to escape.” Ibid. As he did so, Evans and Plumhoff got out of their cruisers and approached Rickard’s car, and Evans, gun in hand, pounded on the passenger-side window. At that point, Rickard’s car “made contact with” yet another police cruiser. Ibid. Rickard’s tires started spinning, and his car “was rocking back and forth,” ibid. , indicating that Rickard was using the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a police cruiser. At that point, Plumhoff fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard then “reversed in a 180 degree arc” and “maneuvered onto” another street, forcing Ellis to “step to his right to avoid the vehicle.”

    2. I read it. The passenger’s rights were simply not at issue in the case. She may or may not have a claim, but courts do not decide issues they don’t have to in order to answer the question before them. In short, that’s a different case.

  2. Having now read the case, I think this isn’t a close call, as reflected in the unanimous nature of the decision. His flight is the grave threat, and there is well established case law which states that officers may use force, including deadly force, to stop a fleeing suspect when there is probable cause that their escape poses a threat to the community (Tenn. v. Garner, 1985). He had clearly demonstrated he was a threat to the community.

    While I understand the attractiveness of the alternative of letting him go and running the tag, it presupposes that the tag is valid or even his; while that is certainly possible or even probable, it’s hardly certain. Further, where will he go and what will he do in the meantime? He would now almost certainly know that the police will be looking for him, so future contact with law enforcement would in all likelihood lead to another chase, or worse.

    Moreover, a blanket policy to not chase simply encourages drivers to run, creating a greater risk to motorists and others on the roads. Certainly there are times to break off chases, depending on the road conditions, traffic, etc. That’s a case by case call. But a blanket no pursuit policy is an invitation to run.

  3. Rickard apparently rammed (head on) a police vehicle and swiped one or two others. I would think that the officers should have treated the passenger as a hostage, but apparently not…

  4. I agree with the decision. Fleeing at high speeds in a vehicle on public roads is an immediate and deadly threat to all concerned. I’ve advocated cement tipped Hellfire missiles fired from police helicopters as a way to stop fleeing vehicles. Take out the HE and put in some cement and target the engine compartment. I would prefer a magistrate make the ruling before using it.

    If you take a car and run it at high speeds on public roads while fleeing police, you’re trying to kill people. This is no different than taking a gun and randomly shooting it in a crowd. Any person has the legal right to use whatever force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the innocent.

  5. I think the headline to blog post is somewhat misleading, or even a bit inflammatory, based on what I read of this case. Any by being so, it raises the frequently-heard mantra of the “rise of the militarized police state.” (Not that I deny that such incidences are on the increase – this just doesn’t pass muster).

    I’m pretty certain that the SCOTUS decision was pretty narrowly based on this specific case, and their (surprisingly) unanimous decision doesn’t mean that cops can capriciously fire upon fleeing motorists. There’s very little question that the drive here was a direct threat to both the officer, other motorists and possible any pedestrians that may have been in the area. I don’t see the issue here.

  6. Note that this ruling is specifically about the lawsuit for damages. The state of Tennessee separately had pursued criminal charges against the officers involved.

    They however did not go to trial and were all put into “pretrial diversions” and their records were ultimately expunged.

    Here is a video of the shooting.

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