Plumhoff v. Rickard

PETITIONER:Vance Plumhoff
RESPONDENT:Whitne Rickard
LOCATION: Parking lot where police cornered vehicle

DOCKET NO.: 12-1117
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Nov 15, 2013
ARGUED: Mar 04, 2014
DECIDED: May 27, 2014

Facts of the case

At midnight on July 18, 2004, West Memphis Police Officer Forthman pulled over Donald Rickard’s vehicle because of an inoperable headlight. After Officer Forthman noticed damage on the vehicle and asked Rickard to step out of the car, Rickard sped away. Officer Forthman called for backup and pursued Rickard from West Memphis, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee. The police officers were ordered to continue the pursuit across the border and ultimately surrounded Rickard in a parking lot in Memphis, Tennessee. When Rickard again attempted to flee, the police fired shots into the vehicle, ultimately killing both Rickard and Kelley Allen, a woman who had been a passenger in the vehicle. The entire exchange was captured on police video.

Rickard and Allen’s families sued the police officers, the chief of police, and the mayor of West Memphis under federal and state law claims. The families argued that the police used excessive force when pursuing and ultimately killing Rickard and Allen and that using that force violated the Fourth Amendment. They also brought claims of assault, battery, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and abuse of process. The government argued that, because the police acted in their official capacity, they were entitled to either absolute or qualified immunity from any lawsuit. The district court refused to dismiss the case against the government, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision of the trial court. The Court of Appeals held that qualified immunity only applies when officers are acting reasonably, and after reviewing subsequent cases, held that the police did not act reasonably in this case. Additionally, because the video evidence showed that the police fired on unarmed, fleeing drivers, a jury could determine that the police were not acting reasonably.


1. Did the Sixth Circuit err when it looked at whether subsequent case law supported the police’s actions rather than determining if the police’s actions were prohibited in 2004?

2. Did the Sixth Circuit properly dismiss the police’s qualified immunity defense by finding that the police acted unreasonably?

Media for Plumhoff v. Rickard

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 04, 2014 in Plumhoff v. Rickard

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 27, 2014 in Plumhoff v. Rickard

Justice Alito has our opinion in case 12-1117, Plumhoff v. Rickard.

This case concerns the question whether a group of police officers violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures when they shot a driver to put an end to a dangerous high-speed car chase.

The relevant facts are as follows: The officers pulled over Donald Rickard in West Memphis, Arkansas when they noticed that he had a burned-out headlight.

During the stop, Rickard acted suspiciously so an officer asked him to step out of the car.

He instead drove off and fled east on an interstate and crossed then to Tennessee.

Several police cruisers pursued him as he swerved in and out of traffic at times its speed exceeding 100 miles an hour.

Rickard eventually turned off the interstate and continued fleeing on other roads.

His car collided with a police car and spun out but he continued to try to escape and he collided with another police car.

At that point, the officers drew their weapons, one of the officers pounded on the window of the car and when Rickard did not surrender and appeared to have his foot on the accelerator, the officer fired a total of fifteen shots.

He nevertheless drove away, but he soon lost control of the car and crashed into a wall.

Rickard and the passenger in his car died.

Rickard’s daughter sued the officers alleging that they had used excessive force.

The District Court agreed and the Sixth Circuit affirmed holding that the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment and that they were not entitled to qualified immunity.

This is a tragic case but we reverse the decision below.

First, we reject the argument that we lack jurisdiction under our decision in Johnson verus Jones, a case in which the only issue raised in an interlocutory appeal concerned the question of evidence sufficiency.

Here, the officers raised legal issues.

Second, we conclude that the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Their use of deadly force to end this dangerous high-speed chase was objectively reasonable.

We further hold that the number of shots fired was not excessive under these circumstances and we conclude that the presence of a passenger in the car does not alter the inquiry as to Rickard himself.

We hold finally that even if the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment, no clearly established law prescribed their conduct at that time, and therefore, they were entitled to qualified immunity on that ground.

For these and other reasons said out in our opinion, we reverse the decision on the Sixth Circuit and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Our decision is unanimous except that Justice Ginsburg does not join parts 3(a) and 3(b), and Justice Breyer does not join part 3(b).