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Constitutional Protections for Police Involved in High-Speed Pursuits

Constitutional Protections for Police Involved in High-Speed Pursuits

High-speed chases create risk for everyone involved—the suspect, the officers in pursuit, and bystanders in other vehicles or on the roadside. To end a pursuit police often use various kinds of force against the suspect’s vehicle, such as the precision immobilization technique (a.k.a. the “PIT maneuver”) in which an officer attempts to spin the suspect’s vehicle. When a suspect or a bystander is injured during a pursuit, the doctrine of qualified immunity under the U.S. Constitution provides protections against civil liability for involved officers.

Qualified immunity and high-speed chases

Police officers involved in high-speed pursuits have substantial protection against civil liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields officers and other public officials from civil liability for injuries they cause during the course of their work so long as their actions don’t “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). The Supreme Court has placed narrow limits to when an officer’s actions fall outside this protection:

  • “A clearly established right is one that is ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violated that right.’” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308 (2015), quoting Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. __ (2012).
  • “Put simply, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’” Mullenix, 136 S. Ct. at 308, quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986).

The Mullenix case illustrates how qualified immunity protects officers

The facts in the Mullenix case show the strength of qualified immunity. In that case the defendant officer was sued by the family of a suspect who died during a chase. The suspect was intoxicated and had threatened officers with a gun during the pursuit. The officer had used a rifle to shoot at the suspect’s car from an overpass before the suspect’s car could reach a spike-strip barrier just ahead, where other officers were waiting. Although the officer had announced an intention to shoot at the car to disable it, his shots instead hit the suspect, who died from his injuries. The plaintiffs sued the officer under federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

In holding in favor of the officer’s qualified immunity, the Supreme Court focused on the facts of the case to conclude that the officer’s decision to use deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances. More to the point, the Court concluded that in light of the suspect’s dangerous behavior it could not conclude “that only someone ‘plainly incompetent’ or who ‘knowingly violate[s] the law’ would have perceived a sufficient threat and acted as Mullenix did.” Mullenix, 136 S. Ct. at 310.

Under the Court’s ruling, the reasonableness and justification for the officer’s actions were evaluated in light of the specific circumstances of the event, not general principles. Importantly, the Court’s majority rejected the reasoning put forward by the dissenting justices that the officer’s actions were unreasonable in light of the availability of other tactics. Id.

Officers can protect themselves by preparing detailed reports

For officers, the lesson in Mullenix is that the facts of a given situation will be of paramount importance in any ensuing litigation. Whether an officer’s actions were reasonable or sank to the level of “incompetence” will be evaluated according to what the officer knew at the time about the suspect’s dangerousness. In a sense, the objective reasonableness of the officer’s actions will be determined by the officer’s subjective understanding of the events taking place in the moment. After any high speed chase that involved use of force, officers should take care to fully document the rationale for their course of action.

Officers who have questions about how qualified immunity functions and how the law governs high speed chases should seek out an attorney. Police departments and unions offer legal advice, but it can sometimes be helpful to speak to an outside firm like Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez. We have helped clients in the Las Vegas first responder community protect themselves from lawsuits for over 45 years. For a free attorney consultation call 702-388-4476 or ask us to reach out to you through our contact page.