The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to take up a qualified immunity decision out of the Sixth Circuit. In Plumhoff v. Rickard, police officers fatally shot a driver and passenger following a high-speed chase of their vehicle near the Arkansas-Tennessee border. Leading up to the chase, an officer had stopped the vehicle and asked the driver to step out of the car; the driver instead drove away. Pursuing officers ultimately fired a series of shots at the vehicle, killing both the driver and passenger. The officers involved were sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutionally excessive use of force. The Sixth Circuit denied their claims to qualified immunity.
The key issue presented in the officers’ petition is whether a subsequent decision can be applied to earlier conduct to determine what was clearly established law at the time the force was used. The chase took place in 2004. Three years later, the Supreme Court issued the decision in Scott v. Harris, concluding that police did not use unconstitutionally excessive force when ramming a vehicle fleeing a high-speed chase. The Sixth Circuit denied qualified immunity in Plumhoff by distinguishing the officers’ behavior from the force used in Scott. Based on this analysis, the officers contend that the Sixth Circuit “erred in analyzing whether the force was supported by subsequent case decisions as opposed to prohibited by clearly established law at the time the force was used.”
Relatedly, the petition also argues that the officers’ conduct was reasonable. Contending that the panel evaluated clearly established law at too high a level of generality, the petition asserts that the officers’ conduct did not violate clearly established law on what constitutes excessive force when the police take steps to stop a fleeing vehicle. The high court thus could take the opportunity to provide further guidance on the standards governing police conduct in a high-speed chase.