Can Police Shoot to a Fleeing Suspect?

fleeing suspectThe answer generally depends on what preceded the suspect’s attempt to flee, and whether the police have a reasonable belief that the suspect is dangerous.

In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police officers may shoot a fleeing suspect in a car who is considered dangerous, and that they may continue shooting at the suspect even when the car is boxed in, as long as the police believe the suspect still poses a threat.

In sum, the Court concluded that it is up to the police to decide when the threat is over, and therefore when the shooting can stop.

The justices were careful to distinguish the case from situations where police believe the suspect has been incapacitated, or where the suspect had given himself up.

In Plumhoff, the driver never surrendered, and continued attempts to flee the scene even after his car was apparently trapped by the police.  Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that the continued threat to public safety justified the use of deadly force until that threat was over.

The decision in Plumhoff does not readily apply to the recent situation involving a Tulsa Public Schools campus officer who reportedly fired on a car parked at Elliott Elementary School.

In that situation, the campus officer contends that he fired on the student driver and his passenger because he feared for his safety.  In other words, he did not fire on the students because he perceived a wider threat to public safety.

While courts have generally held that police may use deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that their life is danger, the circumstances of the Elliott school shooting raise questions about the training provided to the campus officer, whether his use of force was proportional to the threat, and whether the purported belief that his life was in danger was reasonable based upon the totality of circumstances.

Of primary concern for Tulsa Public Schools will be the background of its employee, his training records, and any video of the incident from the patrol car or the school’s surveillance system.

If you have questions about police misconduct, excessive force or shootings, contact the attorney’s at Bryan & Terrill, 918-935-2777.