Officer and Public Safety Justify Force Against Recklessly Fleeing Motorists

Recent decisions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals have clarified the law regarding the force police officers may use to stop a person attempting to flee from police by driving away in a motor vehicle. The Supreme Court had previously established in Tennessee v. Garner (1985) that officers can apply potentially deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or others. In Garner, however, the suspect was on foot. Subsequently, the Supreme Court approved an officer’s use of injurious force in the form of colliding his police vehicle against the car of a fleeing suspect to end a high-speed chase. Now the Court has addressed the applicability of these principles to the shooting of a suspect fleeing in a car.

In Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S.Ct. 2012 (2014), addressed an “excessive force” claim arising from the death of a suspect who drove recklessly away from a traffic stop, rather than comply with directions to exit his vehicle. The suspect swerved through traffic at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour, with the original officer and others in pursuit. When finally cornered after spinning his car into a parking lot, the suspect collided with two police vehicles and attempted to escape by driving away in reverse, forcing officers who had exited their vehicles to jump out of his way. Before the suspect could exit the parking lot, three officers fired a total of fifteen gun shots into the vehicle, fatally wounding the suspect.

The Supreme Court held that a police officer’s act of shooting in an attempt “to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of officers or innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing suspect at risk of serious injury or death.” Moreover, once an officer begins shooting “at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.” Because the suspect in Plumhoff had continued trying to drive away during the entire “10-second span when all the shots were fired,” the suspect had “never abandoned his attempt to flee,” and the officers were justified in firing all fifteen shots.

Subsequently, in Cass v. City of Dayton (decided October 16, 2014), the U.S. Sixth Circuit applied the Plumhoff ruling in the circumstance where a suspected drug dealer attempted to drive away from a police drug sting. In doing so, the suspect struck two officers, knocking one officer on the ground and striking the hand of the other such that the officer’s gun inadvertently fired. Hearing the gunshot and assuming other officers to be in peril, the officer on the ground fired a single shot that missed the suspect driver and killed the vehicle passenger. Although the officers were disciplined for violating departmental policy, the Sixth Circuit found no constitutional violation. Relying on Plumhoff and earlier Sixth Circuit precedents, the Court held that the officers “were not required to step aside and let the [suspect vehicle] escape, particularly after it had struck two of their fellow officers.” Although the officers who had already been struck were not in danger of being struck again, “no reasonable officer would say that the night’s peril had ended at that point,” because there were other officers on the scene, and the suspect had shown “a willingness to injure officers trying to prevent him from fleeing.”

These cases establish that officers may properly use deadly force in the form of shooting a suspect if the suspect’s attempt to flee police threatens the safety of officers or the general public. It can be expected that the Plumhoff decision will have a significant impact upon future cases involving the fatal shooting of suspects by police. The shooting of a suspect whose flight in a motor vehicle jeopardizes the safety of officers or the public can be reasonable under constitutional standards.

Douglas Curlew is an attorney in our Livonia office where he concentrates his practice on appeals, premises liability and insurance law. He may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or dcurlew@cmda-law.com.