In short: Donald Rickard was pulled over because had a headlight out and a basketball-sized dent in his front windshield. He told the police he wasn't drunk, but when asked to step out of the car he sped off instead, swerving through highway traffic at over 100 mph. Finally off the highway and cornered in a parking lot, Rickard kept on going, bumping the police cars surrounding him. Police fired three shots into his car; he reversed and started getting away again; two officers fired 12 more shots toward Rickard’s car and he lost control and crashed into a building. Rickard and his passenger died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered in the crash that ended the chase. Rickard's daughter sued. [Some video of the chase is online here.]
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had found against the officers, that the use of force was unreasonable because "the fleeing vehicle was essentially stopped and surrounded by police officers and police cars although some effort to elude capture was still being made." Moreover, the lower court had found the use of force unreasonable because "the police here fired fifteen shots at close range, all but two of which apparently hit the subjects and twelve of which hit the driver.... when deciding to use lethal force, the police knew there was a passenger in the fleeing vehicle thus doubling the risk of death. The police make much of the fact that they felt they were in personal danger, but the degree to which that was true is not resolved by the video recordings."
Today's Supreme Court reversed that decision. Eight justices found the first three shots to be constitutionally permissible, seven approved the next twelve, and all nine agreed that even if this was excessive force, it wasn't so excessive that you could sue these officers over it. I'll explain more below the fold.
Justice Alito's opinion for the Court focuses on the "reasonableness" standard under the Fourth Amendment -- under the totality of the circumstances, from the perspective of "a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” was the force justified?
Eight Justices (not Ginsburg) agreed that the police were reasonable in using deadly force for the first three shots, when Rickard seemed surrounded: "Under the circumstances at the moment when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable police 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."
And seven Justices (not Ginsburg or Breyer) agreed on the next twelve shots:
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. As petitioners noted below, “if lethal force is justified, officers are taught to keep shooting until the threat is over.”Finally, all nine Justices agreed that even if this were unconstitutional, it was not clearly unconstitutional at the time that it happened, and under the doctrine of "qualified immunity," you can't sue a state actor for something she had no reason to know was unconstitutional at the time.
Here, during the 10-second span when all the shots were fired, Rickard never abandoned his attempt to flee. Indeed, even after all the shots had been fired, he managed to drive away and to continue driving until he crashed.This would be a different case if petitioners had initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated Rickard and had ended any threat of continued flight, or if Rickard had clearly given himself up. But that is not what happened.
The Court also recognizes, in a footnote, that the case would be a little different if the passenger's next-of-kin had sued, and more-or-less invite such a case to be presented in the future: "There seems to be some disagreement among lower courts as to whether a passenger in Allen’s situation can recover under a Fourth Amendment theory. Compare [two cases on each side of the question]. We express no view on this question. We also note that in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U. S. 833, 836 (1998), the Court held that a passenger killed as a result of a police chase could recover under a substantive due process theory only if the officer had 'a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest.'”