On July 18, 2004, around midnight, a police officer conducted a traffic stop on a car driven by Rickard because it had only one operating headlight. When Rickard failed to produce his driver’s license, the officer asked him to step out of the car. Instead of stepping out, Rickard sped away. The officer pursued Rickard on an interstate highway along with officers in five other police cars. During the pursuit, Rickard was swerving through traffic at speeds over 100 miles per hour. After Rickard exited the interstate highway, he made a sharp turn causing contact between his car and one of the police cars. This contact caused Rickard’s car to spin out into a parking lot and collide with Officer Plumhoff’s police car. Officers Evans and Plumhoff got out of their cars and approached Rickard’s car. Evans with gun in hand, pounded on the passenger side window of Rickard’s car. At this point, Rickard’s tires started spinning and his car was rocking back and forth, an indication that Rickard was using the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against the police car in front of him. Plumhoff fired three shots into Rickard’s car, but Rickard put his car in reverse and turned around, forcing Ellis to step to the side to avoid being struck. As Rickard accelerated down the street away from the officers, two other officers fired 12 shots towards the fleeing suspect. Rickard lost control of the car and crashed into a building. Both Rickard and his passenger, Allen, died from a combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered in the crash.
Rickard’s daughter sued Plumhoff and five other police officers claiming the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force to stop Rickard.
Whether the Sixth Circuit improperly denied the officers qualified immunity by finding their use of force was unreasonable as a matter of law?
Yes. The officers’ conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment; therefore, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
Rickard led the officers on a chase with speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour and lasted over five minutes. During the chase, Rickard passed more than two dozen other vehicles, several of which were forced to alter their course. After Rickard’s car collided with a police car and appeared to be stopped, Rickard resumed maneuvering his car in an attempt to escape. Under the circumstances, the court found Rickard’s outrageously reckless driving posed a grave public safety risk. As a result, a reasonable officer could have concluded that Rickard was intent on resuming his flight, and if he were allowed to do so, he would once again pose a deadly threat for others on the road. Consequently, the court held the police officers acted reasonably by firing at Rickard to end that risk.
The court added the officers were justified in firing 15 shots at Rickard, stating, “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.” Here, during the 10-second span when the officers fired their shots, Rickard continued to flee until he crashed. In addition, the court stated Allen’s presence in the car had no bearing in the analysis of whether the officers acted reasonably by firing at Rickard because Fourth Amendment rights are personal and cannot be asserted by another person. As such, the court did not consider Allen’s presence in the car when determining the reasonableness of the officers’ actions. Finally, the court held even if the officers’ use of force against Rickard had been unreasonable, the officers would still have been entitled to qualified immunity. The court found that at the time of the incident, no clearly established law prohibited the officers from firing at a fleeing vehicle to prevent harm to others.
572 U.S. ___, 134 S. Ct. 2012 (2014)