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Justices side with police in deadly chase

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Unanimous ruling backs up police version of a two-state car chase in 2004
  • Both the driver and his passenger were killed after police opened fire and the car crashed
  • Driver fled a police stop and rammed two cruisers
  • The ruling also says that police involved in the case cannot be sued

(CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that police officers were within their rights to use deadly force in a car chase and shooting that ended with two people killed in western Tennessee.

In a 9-0 ruling, the justices also said the police officers involved in the two-state car chase were immune from lawsuits.

The incident occurred in July 2004 when police in West Memphis, Arkansas, questioned Donald Rickard at a gas station about a broken light on his car.

He refused to step out the car and then took off. With his girlfriend, Kelly Allen, in the passenger seat, Rickard crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee along Interstate 40.

After Rickard rammed a police car head-on and sideswiped another, police fired 15 shots into the vehicle, mounted cameras from police vehicles show.

The car went airborne and slammed into a house in Memphis. Rickard and Allen, both 44, were killed.

Rickard's daughter sued, saying unreasonable force was used, since her father was neither armed nor had just committed a serious criminal offense.

But the court didn't see it that way.

"It 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," said Justice Samuel Alito. "The officers were entitled to qualified immunity (from a lawsuit) because they violated no clearly established law."

State and federal courts have struggled with a broad application for high-speed pursuits, especially of those not implicated in an underlying criminal offense, such as an armed bank robbery.

During the court's public look at the case, it was clear the police version held sway.

The car "is eventually surrounded by officers with guns pointed at the driver demanding that he get out, that he put his hands up, and stop driving. They are pounding on the windows of the car. And the driver then begins to drive away," said Alito during oral arguments in March. "What do reasonable officers do? Maybe what they should do is to continue the chase indefinitely."

Rickard "has already gone 100 miles an hour when the car moved away, even though that part of the street was deserted," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Why would a reasonable officer not be suspicious that more reckless driving is going to occur?"

The Obama administration had supported the officers in the Memphis case.

Many police departments have specific policies about when to chase and when to hold back, but there are no national statistics on how jurisdictions handle such situations.

A recent study from the journal of the National Association of EMS Physicians found about 300 people die every year in the United States as a result of police chases.

The high court confined its ruling largely to the specific case at hand, ducking the larger constitutional question of whether similar conduct of this nature would ever violate the Fourth Amendment.

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