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Chief's Counsel

Plumhoff v. Rickard: The Use of Deadly Force in High-Speed Pursuits and Qualified Immunity

IACP Legal Officers Section

As many officers and police executives know from experience, high-speed pursuits all too often end with tragic consequences. Police officers must balance the goals of law enforcement with the public’s safety (and their own) in such situations, which requires officers to make split-second decisions affecting the safety of citizens in harm’s way, the safety and well-being of the pursuing officers, and the safety of the fleeing suspect who is risking many more lives than his or her own.

The case of Plumhoff v. Rickard, decided unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 27, 2014, involves the use of deadly force against a suspect who led police officers on a dangerous chase reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour and who continued to try to escape even after the police had him cornered.1 The court was asked to decide whether police officers, in order to stop a fleeing driver from putting further individuals at risk, were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions in applying deadly force. In determining whether qualified immunity was appropriate, the court looked at whether the officers infringed upon the Fourth Amendment rights of the fleeing driver, and, if they had, whether those rights were clearly established either constitutionally or statutorily.

On July 18, 2004, a patrol officer with the West Memphis, Arkansas, Police Department pulled over a vehicle for having only one operational headlight. As the officer approached the vehicle, he noticed an indentation in the windshield, “roughly the size of a head or a basketball,” and glass shavings on the dashboard, indicating that the windshield had been broken recently; he also observed beer in the car.2 The officer approached and asked the driver, Donald Rickard, if he had been drinking. After denying that he had been drinking, Rickard then was asked to produce his license. Because Rickard became nervous and failed to provide his identification, the officer asked the driver to step out of the vehicle.3 Rather than comply with the request, Rickard sped away, leading the officer and others who had been called for backup, on a high-speed pursuit.

The officer was joined by five other police cruisers, which pursued Rickard east on I-40. At one point, the officers attempted to stop Rickard using a “rolling roadblock,” but they were unsuccessful. After passing more than two dozen vehicles and weaving through traffic at a high rate of speed (exceeding 100 miles per hour), Rickard exited the highway and, after making contact with an officer’s vehicle, spun out into a parking lot where his vehicle collided with another officer’s vehicle. Officers quickly reacted in an effort to corner the driver, who was attempting to escape. Two officers exited their vehicles, and one, with his gun in his hand, pounded on Rickard’s passenger-side window. Rickard made contact with yet another police vehicle, and he rocked his car back and forth, with tires spinning, indicating that he was hitting the accelerator while his bumper was flush against a police cruiser. One officer fired three shots into Rickard’s vehicle, after which, Rickard reversed in a 180-degree arc and fled onto a different street, narrowly missing another officer. Officers then fired 12 additional rounds into Rickard’s vehicle, after which the driver swerved off the road and crashed into a nearby building. Rickard and his passenger both died from a combination of gunshot wounds and injuries sustained in the crash that ended the chase.4

Rickard’s daughter filed the underlying action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.5 The officers moved for summary judgment, asserting “qualified immunity” from suit. Generally, qualified immunity protects government officials from civil suits filed against them in execution of their duties. Individual lawsuits are permitted to proceed, however, if the official is deemed to have violated the rights of a plaintiff and if those rights were clearly established at the time the official’s conduct occurred.6 Qualified immunity is not a defense to liability; rather, it prevents an official from being subject to any lawsuit at all.7

The district court rejected the qualified immunity defense and denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment, holding that “the facts here do not support a finding that a reasonable officer would have considered the fleeing suspects a clear risk to others.”8 The officers appealed, but the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. An appeal was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. The officers argued 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 in question.

Excessive force, which is used to effectuate a seizure, if deemed unreasonable, is considered to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In determining whether the use of force is appropriate, courts look to balance the particular intrusion of rights against the governmental interest being advanced.9 If the intrusion upon a person’s rights is deemed greater than the governmental interest, the use of force will be considered unreasonable. Likewise, if the governmental interest is so substantial that it compels such an intrusion of rights, it will be deemed reasonable. In such use-of-force cases, the standard for reasonableness is based upon what a reasonable officer on the scene would do under the same circumstances.10 This reasonableness standard acknowledges that an officer often must act on limited knowledge in emergencies or urgent situations that do not permit lengthy deliberation.

In this case, the court utilized this analysis in assessing the specific facts at hand to determine whether Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated as a result of the use of excessive force. Having concluded that the use of deadly force was severely intrusive, the court then examined the governmental interest involved. In particular, the governmental interest here was deemed to encompass more than simply a law enforcement purpose, as it directly pertained to the safety of the officers involved in the high-speed pursuit, as well as pedestrians and drivers who were within harm’s way. In determining the strength of the governmental interest, the court looked to the facts of the case—the excessively high speed of the fleeing vehicle, the number of vehicles that were passed, the likelihood that the driver would continue to engage in speeding (if not stopped)—in addition to the fact that the driver was attempting to escape when the first shots were fired by police.

After review of all the facts, the court concluded that when officers attempt to terminate a high-speed chase that threatens the lives of those involved in the pursuit, as well as innocent bystanders, police officers do not violate the fleeing individual’s Fourth Amendment rights, even if their use of force puts the fleeing suspect at risk of significant injury or death.11 In doing so, the court reinforced its holding in Scott v. Harris, which addressed a similar set of facts involving the use of deadly force in a high-speed pursuit endangering innocent lives.12

Regarding the number of rounds fired at Rickard’s vehicle, the court recognized that when authorized to use lethal force, officers are instructed to keep shooting until the threat is neutralized.13 As such, the court determined that the number of shots fired in this situation was reasonable. Moreover, it also noted that even after all the shots had been fired, Rickard still managed to drive away and continued driving until he crashed.14 The respondent argued that the presence of a passenger in the front seat of the car should factor into the analysis as to whether the number of shots fired was reasonable. However, the court determined that the Fourth Amendment rights of the passenger cannot be “vicariously asserted,” and the passenger’s presence in the vehicle cannot enhance Rickard’s Fourth Amendment rights.15 In so ruling, the court noted that it was Rickard who placed his passenger’s life in danger, and he could not benefit from his disregard for her safety.

The court next addressed the question: Even if the officers did violate the fleeing driver’s rights, were those rights clearly established? As mentioned above, officers can be sued in their individual capacities only if they violate a person’s rights and those rights were clearly established at that time.16 This standard suggests that the nature of a right must be sufficiently definite that any reasonable officer, taken from the viewpoint of the defendant, would have understood that he or she was violating it. Generally, this requires either a controlling precedent or a series of cases persuasive enough to suggest that a right had been infringed.17 This goes to the idea that an officer infringing upon a right should know that he or she is doing so, and that prior cases or statute have put him or her on sufficient notice. The court in this case, however, found no controlling authority issued prior to this incidence that would suggest lethal force was a violation of rights in this particular situation. As such, the court held that even if the officers had violated Rickard’s rights, it was not clearly established, and, thus, did not prevent qualified immunity.18

This holding corrected the Sixth Circuit’s conclusions in balancing the factors used in determining whether the Fourth Amendment is violated when police officers utilize deadly force in ending a dangerous high-speed chase in which innocent lives hang in the balance, and whether, even if a violation has occurred, the officers are immune from suit under qualified immunity. An officer must exercise his best, split-second judgment as to whether lethal force is necessary to prevent a suspect from engaging in a life-endangering chase. Provided those decisions are objectively reasonable, they are shielded from lawsuits under qualified immunity.

It is also important, however, to recognize that the facts of this case led to the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In this instance, the court recognized not only the danger that Rickard posed, but also the potential for future danger if he were to continue fleeing. As such, the ruling in this case is fact specific, and the facts involved in other pursuits may not justify the use of lethal force to end the pursuit. ♦

1Plumhoff v. Rickard, 188 L. Ed. 2d 1056 (U.S. May 27, 2014).
2Id. at 1062, citing Estate of Allen v. West Memphis, 509 Fed. Appx. 388 (CA6 2012) and at 1063, n.1.
3There was a passenger in Mr. Rickard’s vehicle, Kelly Allen, who was seated in the front passenger seat; Id. at 1062.
4 Plumhoff, 188 L. Ed. 2d at 1063.
5“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”
6Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194.
7Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).
8Estate of Allen v. City of W. Memphis, 509 Fed. Appx. 388 (6th Cir. Tenn. 2012) quoting Estate of Allen v. City of W. Memphis, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5606 (W.D. Tenn. Jan. 19, 2011).
9Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).
11Plumhoff, 188 L. Ed. 2d at 1068.
12Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007).
13Plumhoff, 188 L. Ed. 2d at 1068, citing Estate of Allen v. City of W. Memphis, 509 Fed. Appx. 388, 392 (6th Cir. Tenn. 2012).
16Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201.
17Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (U.S. 1986).
18Plumhoff, 188 L. Ed. 2d at 1069.

Please cite as:

IACP Legal Officers Section, “Plumhoff v. Rickard: The Use of Deadly Force in High-Speed Pursuits and Qualified Immunity,” Chief’s Counsel, The Police Chief 81 (August 2014): 18–19.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 8, August 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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