Plumhoff v. Rickard: New Supreme Court Section 1983 Fourth Amendment/Qualified Immunity Decision
Deadly Force (Firing Shots) and High Speed Police Chases
On May 27, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down Plumhoff v. Rickard (PDF), 572 U.S. — (2014) (No. 12-1117), a new Fourth Amendment/qualified immunity decision involving the use of deadly force–firing shots–and high speech chases.
The Plaintiff’s Claim in Plumhoff
Plumhoff involved a high speed chase—it began when an officer pulled over a driver because his car had only one operating headlight–in which police officers shot the driver and a passenger, both of whom died as a result of the shots and the consequent crash. The driver, on whose behalf his daughter filed a § 1983 claim alleging excessive force, made several arguments. First, the police officers who fired at the driver’s car in an attempt to terminate the chase violated the Fourth Amendment. Second, the police officers who fired a total of fifteen shots at the car violated the Fourth Amendment because this was excessive. Finally, the defendants violated clearly settled Fourth Amendment law.
The Court’s Opinion on the Fourth Amendment Merits
In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit that had ruled for the daughter. The Court found that the police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment just because they used deadly force to terminate the chase. Relying on Scott v. Harris, the Court pointed out that here, as in Scott, the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment in terminating a high speed chase posing a grave public safety risk through the use deadly force. The chase lasted over five minutes with speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour; the driver’s outrageously reckless driving put many other vehicles at risk; and even though the driver’s car had come to a temporary halt, that did not end the chase because he continued pushing down on the accelerator in an attempt to escape. At that point an officer fired three shots but the driver continued to drive away. This was followed by an additional twelve shots, with the driver never abandoning his attempt to flee until the crash. The Court emphasized that the officers did not need to stop shooting until it was clear to them that the threat to public safety had ended.
As to the presence of a passenger in the front seat of the car, this was largely irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment issue posed by this case: it was not the passenger’s Fourth Amendment rights that were implicated, it was those of the driver. “[The passenger’s] presence in the car cannot enhance [the driver’s] Fourth Amendment rights.” In this connection, the Court observed in passing that there was disagreement in the circuits as to whether a passenger in this situation even had a Fourth Amendment claim. In addition, if such a passenger pursued a substantive due process claim, he or she would have to prove that the officer had a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest, per County of Sacramento v. Lewis.
Finally, the Court ruled that in any event, the officers did not violate clearly settled Fourth Amendment law as of July 18, 2004, the date of the events in question. The Court’s decision in Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004), had ruled that a police officer did not violate clearly settled Fourth Amendment law when she fired at a fleeing vehicle to prevent harm to officers she believed were nearby and to protect other citizens. The events in Brosseau occurred in February 1999 and there were no intervening decisions that constituted controlling or persuasive authority that changed this qualified immunity determination.
Plumhoff was not a surprising decision. It followed from Scott v. Harris, but expanded that decision to expressly include shooting a fleeing driver who poses a grave risk to officers or public safety. In other words, there is no Fourth Amendment obligation on the part of police officers in these situations to refrain from firing shots, at least while the chase and the danger to others are ongoing.
Plumhoff also emphasized the need for judges doing Fourth Amendment analysis to put themselves in the place of police officers making split second decisions.
It is further worth noting the Court’s insistence that the clearly settled law inquiry not be conducted at too high a level of generality but rather at a fairly fact specific level in Fourth Amendment excessive force cases especially.
Follow me on Twitter: @NahmodLaw