One can almost never pick up a newspaper or news magazine or watch a news program these days without receiving information about police officers using excessive or deadly force. There is more public concern today about this issue than in the last 50 years.
On Monday, November 9, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant ruling in a Texas case involving a high speed police chase of a suspect that ended with a DPS officer shooting the suspect to death with 6 shots from a rifle fired from a highway overpass. The Court held that peace officers have immunity from suits arising out of the use of deadly force against fleeing suspects unless it is “beyond debate” that the shooting was unjustified and clearly unreasonable. In this case the officer who shot the suspect had been ordered by his superior not to shoot unless and until road spikes failed to stop the suspect. The officer did not wait as ordered. The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court said that while this case was factually different from other pursuit cases, there existed “no case from this court denying qualified immunity because officers entitled to terminate a high-speed chase selected one dangerous alternative over another”.
While public opinion may be trending toward a desire for law enforcement to use less force and to use force less often, the U.S. Supreme Court intends to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement in excessive force cases. If we apply the “beyond debate” test stated in this opinion, one would have to conclude that a peace officer would have to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal conduct to be held civilly liable.