By Mark Sherman
Aided by video captured by dashboard cameras in police cruisers, Supreme Court justices on Tuesday seemed poised to rule for police officers involved in a high-speed chase that ended with the deaths of the fleeing driver and his passenger.
No one on the court appeared willing to affirm an appeals court ruling allowing a civil lawsuit by the driver’s daughter to proceed against six West Memphis, Ark., police officers.
They fatally shot driver Donald Rickard and passenger Kelly Allen in 2004 in a chaotic scene on a Memphis street following a chase that began across the Mississippi River in Arkansas. A police officer pulled over Rickard’s white Honda because a headlight was out. Rickard sped away when the officer asked him to get out of the car.
Police fired 15 shots into Rickard’s car, of which 12 came after Rickard managed to begin driving away from officers who had surrounded the vehicle.
In 2007, the court voted in a case from Georgia that police may use tactics that put fleeing suspects at risk of death in order to end high-speed car chases. In that case, Justice Antonin Scalia chastised an appeals court panel for its ruling in favor of the driver, who was paralyzed after police bumped his car and forced it off the road.
On that court, only Justice John Paul Stevens said he wasn’t especially frightened by the chase and would have sided with the driver.
Scalia, 77, is now in Stevens’ place as the longest-serving member of the court, and he left no doubt Tuesday about his view of Rickard’s actions.
Even when surrounded, Scalia said, “The car is not stopped and, you know, the driver with his hands up. The car is still trying to get out of this encirclement by the other police cars, right?”
Earlier in the argument, Kennedy raised one question about the police response that appeared to trouble other justices as well.
“What effect, if any, do you give to the fact that there was a passenger in the car, a passenger who apparently was not involved in any illegal activity?” Kennedy asked Michael Mosley, the lawyer for the police.
The court could resolve the case by deciding the officers did not violate Rickard’s rights, or they could say that the law involving police chase and use of lethal force was not clear at the time of the incident.