WASHINGTON (CN) - Police officers who ended a dangerous car chase by shooting the driver, causing a fatal crash, deserve qualified immunity, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Donald Rickard had drawn the attention of police in West Memphis, Ark., near midnight on July 18, 2004, because the white Honda Accord he was driving had only one operating headlight.
When Lt. Joseph Forthman pulled over the car, he noticed a basketball-sized indentation in its windshield.
Rickard denied drinking that evening, would not produce his driver's license and appeared nervous. He sped away, with passenger Kelly Allen still inside, when Forthman asked him to step out of the car.
Five other police cruisers joined Forthman in the ensuing chase.
A "rolling roadblock" failed to stop Rickard as the chase went east on Interstate 40 toward Memphis, Tenn.
The record shows that the vehicles were driving faster than 100 mph as they swerved through traffic and passed more than two dozen cars.
Shortly after Rickard got off the highway in Memphis, he crashed into the cruiser driven by Officer Jimmy Evans and spun out into a parking lot where he hit another cruiser, this one driven by Sgt. Vance Plumhoff.
As Rickard tried to reverse out, Evans and Plumhoff got out of their cruisers and ran toward the car.
With his gun in hand, Evans pounded on the passenger-side window as Rickard crashed into a third police cruiser.
The record shows that Rickard continued accelerating into the cruiser and that Plumhoff then fired three shots into Rickard's car.
Officer Lance Ellis said he was nearly hit as Rickard did a 180 and continued fleeing.
Two more officers fired a final 12 shots at the Accord, which Rickard then lost control and crashed into a building. He and Allen both died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries from the crash.
Rickard's minor daughter, Whitne, sued the six individual police officers and the mayor and chief of police of West Memphis, and a federal judge denied the officers immunity.
The 6th Circuit eventually affirmed, but the U.S. Supreme Court was mostly unanimous in its reversal Tuesday.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined in the judgment except as to certain parts of its final section.
There is precedent for the holding that 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," the opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, states.
"The record conclusively disproves respondent's claim that the chase in the present case was already over when petitioners began shooting," Alito added. "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. Rickard's conduct even after the shots were fired - as noted, he managed to drive away despite the efforts of the police to block his path - underscores the point.
"In light of the circumstances we have discussed, it is beyond serious dispute that Rickard's flight posed a grave public safety risk."
As in the 2007 case Scott v. Harris
, "the police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk," Alito concluded.
Breyer joined those findings but not a section that finds nothing unreasonable in the fact that the officers fired 15 shots.
In that section, Alito said "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."
Allen's presence in the car does not enhance Rickard's Fourth Amendment rights either, the court found.
"After all, it was Rickard who put Allen in danger by fleeing and refusing to end the chase, and it would be perverse if his disregard for Allen's safety worked to his benefit," Alito wrote.
Breyer rejoined the opinion along with Ginsburg, who did not join in any of the aforementioned findings, for the final section, which says the officers would still be entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity even if their conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment.