Vol. 29 No. 13 – Police Officers Who Shot at Driver of Fleeing Vehicle to End Dangerous Vehicle Pursuit Did Not Violate the Fourth Amendment and Entitled to Qualified Immunity for their Actions


On May 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion entitled Plumhoff v. Rickard, in which the Court held that police officers who shot the driver of a fleeing vehicle to end a dangerous car chase did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  The Court also determined that the police officers were alternatively entitled to qualified immunity because they violated no clearly established law by their conduct.

In making its ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, which had affirmed the District Court’s denial of the officers’ motion for summary judgment.  In denying the officers’ motion for summary judgment, the District Court had ruled that the officers’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and was contrary to law that was clearly established at the time in question. The Supreme Court categorically disagreed with both the District Court and the Court of Appeals.

Facts[1] and Procedural History

Near midnight on July 18, 2004, an officer with the West Memphis, Arkansas, Police Department pulled over a white Honda Accord because the car had only one functional headlight.  Rickard was the driver of the Accord. Allen was a passenger in the car.  The officer who pulled Rickard over noticed an indentation “‘roughly the size of a head or a basketball’” in the windshield of the car.  The officer asked Rickard if he had been drinking, and Rickard responded that he had not.  Because Rickard failed to produce his driver’s license upon request and appeared nervous, the officer asked him to step out of the car. Rather than comply with the officer’s request, Rickard sped away.

The officer gave chase. He was soon joined by five other police cruisers. The officers pursued Rickard and attempted to stop Rickard using a “‘rolling roadblock,’” but they were unsuccessful. The District Court described the vehicles as “‘swerving through traffic at high speeds,’” and there was no dispute that the cars attained speeds over 100 miles per hour. “During the chase, Rickard and the officers passed more than two dozen vehicles.”

Rickard eventually exited the freeway upon which the pursuit occurred, and shortly afterward made “‘a quick right turn,’” causing “‘contact [to] occu[r]’” between his car and one of the police cruisers. As a result of that contact, Rickard’s car spun out into a parking lot and collided with another cruiser. Now in danger of being cornered, Rickard put his car into reverse “‘in an attempt to escape.’” As he did so, two of the officers got out of their cruisers and approached Rickard’s car.  One of the officers, gun in hand, pounded on the passenger-side window. At that point, Rickard’s car “‘made contact with’” yet another police cruiser. “Rickard’s tires started spinning, and his car “‘was rocking back and forth,’” indicating that Rickard was using the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a police cruiser.”

At that point, one officer fired three shots into Rickard’s car. Rickard then “‘reversed in a 180 degree arc’” and “‘maneuvered onto’” another street, forcing an officer to “‘step to his right to avoid the vehicle.’” As Rickard continued “‘fleeing down’” that street, two officers fired a total of 12 shots toward Rickard’s car, bringing the total number of shots fired during this incident to 15. “Rickard then lost control of the car and crashed into a building.” “Rickard and Allen both died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered in the crash that ended the chase.”

The plaintiff, Rickard’s surviving daughter, filed an action against six individual police officers involved in the pursuit, the mayor and the chief of police of West Memphis.  She alleged that the officers used excessive force in violation of both the Fourth and the Fourteenth Amendments.

The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.  The District Court denied their motion, holding that the “officers’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and was contrary to the law that was clearly established at the time in question.”  The officers appealed.

After resolving a dispute concerning its jurisdiction to hear the appeal, the Sixth Circuit ultimately affirmed the District Court’s decision denying the officers’ motion.


The Supreme Court initially determined that the Court of Appeals had properly exercised its jurisdiction to hear the case on the merits.  The Court then noted that the officers maintained the Court of Appeals was incorrect in its ruling for two separate reasons.  Specifically, the officers asserted that they did not violate Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights and that their conduct did not violate any Fourth Amendment rule that was clearly established at the time of the events at issue, thus entitling them to qualified immunity from suit.

The Court observed that a claim that law-enforcement officers used excessive force to effect a seizure is governed by the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” standard pursuant to Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386 (1989) and Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1(1985). The Court stated, “[i]nGraham, we held that determining the objective reasonableness of a particular seizure under the Fourth Amendment “‘requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.’” The Court noted that, “[t]he inquiry requires analyzing the totality of the circumstances.”

The Court stated that it was necessary to “analyze this question from the perspective “‘of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.’” The Court remarked that it must “‘allow for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.’”

The Court observed that the plaintiff advanced two main Fourth Amendment arguments. First, she contended that the Fourth Amendment did not allow the officers to use deadly force to terminate the chase. Second, she argued that the “‘degree of force was excessive,’” that is, that even if the officers were permitted to fire their weapons, they went too far when they fired as many rounds as they did. The Court addressed each issue in turn.

The Court initially noted that it had previously determined, in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 223 (2007), that a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high speed pursuit that threatened the lives of innocent bystanders did not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it placed the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.  The Court stated that it saw no reason for reaching a contrary decision in the present case.  The Court remarked that the chase in this case exceeded 100 miles per hour and lasted more than five minutes. The Court also observed that Rickard passed more than two dozen other vehicles during the chase, causing several of them to alter course. The Court concluded that Rickard’s “outrageously reckless driving posed a grave public safety risk.”

The Court acknowledged that Rickard’s car collided with a police car and was temporarily at a near standstill.  However, the Court stated that this did not end the chase, noting that less than three seconds later, Rickard was able to resume maneuvering his car.  The Court observed that, immediately before shots were fired, Rickard was obviously pushing down on the accelerator causing his tires to spin and put his car in reverse “‘in an obvious attempt to escape.’” The Court stated that the record conclusively disproved plaintiff’s argument that the chase was over prior to the officers opening fire. The Court further stated that, “[u]nder 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.” The Court commented that Rickard, even after the shots were fired, “managed to drive away despite the efforts of the police to block his path—underscore[d] the point.”

The Court held that “it was beyond serious dispute that Rickard’s flight posed a grave public safety risk, and here, as in Scott, the police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk.”

The Court next turned to the plaintiff’s argument that the officers’ use of force was excessive due to the fact that they fired 15 shots at Rickard.  The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument. The Court stated that “[i]t 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.”  The Court further observed that, “‘if lethal force is justified, officers are taught to keep shooting until the threat is over.’”

The Court stated, “[h]ere, 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 [the officers] 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 noted that plaintiff rested her argument, in part, upon the presence of a passenger in the vehicle.  However, the Court stated that the presence of a passenger in the vehicle did not in any way enhance Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Court remarked that, “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.”

The Court further held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.  “An official sued under §1983 is entitled to qualified immunity unless it is shown that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was “‘clearly established’” at the time of the challenged conduct.” The Court noted that “a defendant cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.”

The Court stated that its prior decision in Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194 (2004), squarely demonstrated that no clearly established law precluded the officers’ conduct at the time in question. The Court observed that, “[i]nBrosseau, we held that a police officer did not violate clearly established law when she fired at a fleeing vehicle to prevent possible harm to “‘other officers on foot who [she] believed were in the immediate area, . . . occupied vehicles in [the driver’s] path[,] and . . . any other citizens who might be in the area.’”  The Court further noted that, “Brosseau makes plain that as of February 21, 1999—the date of the events at issue in that case—it was not clearly established that it was unconstitutional to shoot a fleeing driver to protect those whom his flight might endanger.”  Finally, the Court stated that plaintiff had not met her burden to demonstrate that the officers’ conduct was materially different from the conduct in Brosseau, or that there was other controlling authority or a consensus of persuasive authority that would alter its analysis of the qualified immunity question.  The Court concluded that plaintiff had done neither.

The Court stated that, “certain facts here are more favorable to the officers. InBrosseau, an officer on foot fired at a driver who had just begun to flee and who had not yet driven his car in a dangerous manner. In contrast, the officers here shot at Rickard to put an end to what had already been a lengthy, high-speed pursuit that indisputably posed a danger both to the officers involved and to any civilians who happened to be nearby.”  The Court further remarked that plaintiff had failed to present any authority that established the officers’ conduct violated clearly established law, distinguishing the one case cited by the District Court to support its ruling denying the officers’ motion for summary judgment.

The Court held that the officers did not violate Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights and were entitled to qualified immunity in any event.


This case clarifies the analytical framework for decisions concerning qualified immunity, building upon the prior Supreme Court decisions ofSaucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) and Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).  This decision further establishes constitutional precedent that, under the totality of the circumstances presented in this case, it was not a Fourth Amendment violation for law enforcement officers to fire their weapons 15 times to end the threat posed by a vehicle pursuit that posed a grave public safety risk.

As with all legal issues, it is imperative to confer with your agency’s designated attorney for advice and guidance.  However, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

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[1] Because the case arose from the denial of the officers’ motion for summary judgment, the Court viewed the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as established in the record before the District Court.