The Arkansas police officers who fired 15 rounds into a fleeing vehicle, killing both the driver and passenger, were justified in doing so, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In 2004, police officers in West Memphis ended a high-speed car chase by firing shots into the fleeing vehicle. The drivers of the car weren’t armed and were killed as a result of the firing, leading many to argue the use of force by the police squad was excessive. Not so, declared Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the decision for the court.
“Under the circumstances present in this case,” Mr. Alito said, “we hold that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit petitioners from using the deadly force that they employed to terminate the dangerous car chase.”
“If police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety,” the high court held, “the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling overturns a previous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which ruled against the police officers, opening them up to civil lawsuits.
The Court’s decision in favor of the police officers action, undoing the 6th Circuit was widely expected. When the court was last confronted with the issue of law-enforcement officers using deadly force to end a high-speed chase, they sided 8-to-1 in favor of the officer who rammed his car into the fleeing vehicle, thereby ending the chase. That accident left the suspect paralyzed.
“A police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment,” declared the majority opinion in the 2007 Supreme Court case, “even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”