Plumhoff v. Rickard, 12–1117.

Decision Date27 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12–1117.,12–1117.
Citation188 L.Ed.2d 1056,572 U.S. 765,134 S.Ct. 2012
Parties Officer Vance PLUMHOFF, et al., Petitioners v. Whitne RICKARD, a Minor Child, Individually, and as Surviving Daughter of Donald Rickard, Deceased, By and Through Her Mother Samantha Rickard, as Parent and Next Friend.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Michael Mosley, North Little Rock, AR, for Petitioners.

John F. Bash, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioners.

Gary K. Smith, Memphis, TN, for Respondent Whitne Rickard.

Michael A. Mosley, Counsel of Record, John Wesley Hall, Little Rock, AR, for Petitioners.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.*

The courts below denied qualified immunity for police officers who shot the driver of a fleeing vehicle to put an end to a dangerous car chase. We reverse and hold that the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In the alternative, we conclude that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they violated no clearly established law.

I
A

Because this case arises from the denial of the officers' motion for summary judgment, we view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the daughter of the driver who attempted to flee. Wilkie v . Robbins, 551 U.S. 537, 543, n. 2, 127 S.Ct. 2588, 168 L.Ed.2d 389 (2007). Near midnight on July 18, 2004, Lieutenant Joseph Forthman of the West Memphis, Arkansas, Police Department pulled over a white Honda Accord because the car had only one operating headlight. Donald Rickard was the driver of the Accord, and Kelly Allen was in the passenger seat. Forthman noticed an indentation, " 'roughly the size of a head or a basketball' " in the windshield of the car. Estate of Allen v. West Memphis, 2011 WL 197426, *1 (W.D.Tenn., Jan. 20, 2011). He asked Rickard if he had been drinking, and Rickard responded that he had not. Because Rickard failed to produce his driver's license upon request and appeared nervous, Forthman asked him to step out of the car. Rather than comply with Forthman's request, Rickard sped away.

Forthman gave chase and was soon joined by five other police cruisers driven by Sergeant Vance Plumhoff and Officers Jimmy Evans, Lance Ellis, Troy Galtelli, and John Gardner. The officers pursued Rickard east on Interstate 40 toward Memphis, Tennessee. While on I–40, they attempted to stop Rickard using a "rolling roadblock," id., at *2, but they were unsuccessful. The District Court described the vehicles as "swerving through traffic at high speeds," id., at *8, and respondent does not dispute that the cars attained speeds over 100 miles per hour.1 See Memorandum of Law in Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment in No. 2:05–cv–2585 (WD Tenn.), p. 16; see also Tr. of Oral Arg. 54:23–55:6. During the chase, Rickard and the officers passed more than two dozen vehicles.

Rickard eventually exited I–40 in Memphis, and shortly afterward he made "a quick right turn," causing "contact [to] occu[r]" between his car and Evans' cruiser. 2011 WL 197426, at *3. As a result of that contact, Rickard's car spun out into a parking lot and collided with Plumhoff's cruiser. Now in danger of being cornered, Rickard put his car into reverse "in an attempt to escape." Ibid . As he did so, Evans and Plumhoff got out of their cruisers and approached Rickard's car, and Evans, gun in hand, pounded on the passenger-side window. At that point, Rickard's car "made contact with" yet another police cruiser. Ibid. Rickard's tires started spinning, and his car "was rocking back and forth," ibid., indicating that Rickard was using the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a police cruiser. At that point, Plumhoff fired three shots into Rickard's car. Rickard then "reversed in a 180 degree arc" and "maneuvered onto" another street, forcing Ellis to "step to his right to avoid the vehicle."

Ibid . As Rickard continued "fleeing down" that street, ibid., Gardner and Galtelli fired 12 shots toward Rickard's car, bringing the total number of shots fired during this incident to 15. Rickard then lost control of the car and crashed into a building. Ibid . Rickard and Allen both died from some combination of gunshot wounds

and injuries suffered in the crash that ended the chase. See App. 60, 76.

B

Respondent, Rickard's surviving daughter, filed this action under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the six individual police officers and the mayor and chief of police of West Memphis. She alleged that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, but the District Court denied that motion, holding that the officers' conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and was contrary to law that was clearly established at the time in question. The officers appealed, but a Sixth Circuit motions panel initially dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction based on this Court's decision in Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 309, 115 S.Ct. 2151, 132 L.Ed.2d 238 (1995). Later, however, that panel granted rehearing, vacated its dismissal order, and left the jurisdictional issue to be decided by a merits panel.

The merits panel then affirmed the District Court's decision on the merits. Estate of Allen v. West Memphis, 509 Fed.Appx. 388 (C.A.6 2012). On the issue of appellate jurisdiction , the merits panel began by stating that a "motion for qualified immunity denied on the basis of a district court's determination that there exists a triable issue of fact generally cannot be appealed on an interlocutory basis." Id., at 391. But the panel then noted that the Sixth Circuit had previously interpreted our decision in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007), as creating an "exception to this rule" under which an immediate appeal may be taken to challenge " 'blatantly and demonstrably false' " factual determinations. 509 Fed. Appx., at 391 (quoting Moldowan v. Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 370 (C.A.6 2009) ). Concluding that none of the District Court's factual determinations ran afoul of that high standard, and distinguishing the facts of this case from those in Scott, the panel held that the officers' conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. 509 Fed.Appx., at 392, and n. 3. The panel said nothing about whether the officers violated clearly established law, but since the panel affirmed the order denying the officers' summary judgment motion,2 the panel must have decided that issue in respondent's favor.

We granted certiorari. 571 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 635, 187 L.Ed.2d 415 (2013).

II

We start with the question whether the Court of Appeals properly exercised jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which gives the courts of appeals jurisdiction to hear appeals from "final decisions" of the district courts.

An order denying a motion for summary judgment is generally not a final decision within the meaning of § 1291 and is thus generally not immediately appealable. Johnson, 515 U.S., at 309, 115 S.Ct. 2151. But that general rule does not apply when the summary judgment motion is based on a claim of qualified immunity. Id., at 311, 115 S.Ct. 2151; Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 528, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). "[Q]ualified immunity is 'an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.' " Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (quoting Mitchell, supra, at 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806). As a result, pretrial orders denying qualified immunity generally fall within the collateral order doctrine. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 671–672, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). This is so because such orders conclusively determine whether the defendant is entitled to immunity from suit; this immunity issue is both important and completely separate from the merits of the action, and this question could not be effectively reviewed on appeal from a final judgment because by that time the immunity from standing trial will have been irretrievably lost. See ibid ; Johnson, supra, at 311–312, 115 S.Ct. 2151 (citing Mitchell, supra, at 525–527, 105 S.Ct. 2806).

Respondent argues that our decision in Johnson, forecloses appellate jurisdiction under the circumstances here, but the order from which the appeal was taken in Johnson was quite different from the order in the present case. In Johnson, the plaintiff brought suit against certain police officers who, he alleged, had beaten him. 515 U.S., at 307, 115 S.Ct. 2151. These officers moved for summary judgment, asserting that they were not present at the time of the alleged beating and had nothing to do with it. Id ., at 307–308, 115 S.Ct. 2151. The District Court determined, however, that the evidence in the summary judgment record was sufficient to support a contrary finding, and the court therefore denied the officers' motion for summary judgment. Id ., at 308, 115 S.Ct. 2151. The officers then appealed, arguing that the District Court had not correctly analyzed the relevant evidence. Ibid .

This Court held that the Johnson order was not immediately appealable because it merely decided "a question of 'evidence sufficiency,' i.e., which facts a party may, or may not, be able to prove at trial." Id ., at 313, 115 S.Ct. 2151. The Court noted that an order denying summary judgment based on a determination of "evidence sufficiency" does not present a legal question in the sense in which the term was used in Mitchell, the decision that first held that a pretrial order rejecting a claim of qualified immunity is immediately appealable. Johnson, 515 U.S., at 314, 115 S.Ct. 2151. In addition, the Court observed that a determination of evidence sufficiency is closely related to other determinations that the trial court may be required to make at later stages of the case. Id ., at 317, 115 S.Ct. 2151. The Court also noted that appellate courts have "no comparative expertise" o...

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