US Supreme Court Backs Cops Who Shoot Motorists US Supreme Court unanimous in granting immunity to police officers who shot and killed a motorist and passenger over a high-speed chase.
The US Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously approved of the actions of police officers who gunned down the driver and passenger in a car that committed a minor traffic infraction and kicked off a brief chase.
Near midnight on July 18, 2004, Officer Joseph Forthman of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department decided to stop a white Honda Accord because it had a burnt-out headlight. On the side of the road, Officer Forthman became suspicious after asking the driver, Donald Rickard, several questions. Rickard was ordered to step out of the vehicle. Instead, Rickard drove off. Five police cruisers chased the Honda on Interstate 40 for about five minutes.
After Rickard took a freeway exit, one of the officers rammed the Honda, causing it to spin out into a parking lot. Rickard was cornered. As he attempted to back the Honda up, the officers opened fire at point-blank range, killing Rickard and passenger Kelly Allen.
Rickard's family filed a lawsuit against the officers, and both a trial judge and the Sixth Circuit US Court of Appeals found they were not entitled to immunity for their actions because of the excessive force used. The Supreme Court justices reversed, arguing the force used was reasonable from the perspective of a police officer on the scene as the events unfolded.
"While it is true that Rickard's car eventually collided with a police car and came temporarily to a near standstill, that did not end the chase," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. "Less than three seconds later, Rickard resumed maneuvering his car... 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."
The justices found that firing fifteen rounds into the car was not excessive because Rickard continued to flee, even after he had been shot. The court refused to consider whether the family of passenger Kelly Allen would have a claim, noting only that a prior decision suggests Allen's family would have to prove "a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest."
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, said this decision would encourage an escalation of force by police against citizens because the officers would know they will not be held to account, no matter what they do.
"This lawlessness on the part of government officials, an unmistakable characteristic of a police state, is made possible in large part by the courts, which increasingly defer to law enforcement and prioritize security over civil liberties," Rutherford said in a statement. "In so doing, the government gives itself free rein to abuse the law, immune from reproach, and we are all the worse off for it."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 130k PDF file at the source link below.