By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
A busted headlight that led to a traffic stop and then a wild chase that ended with two people dying in a hail of police bullets.
That's the case before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, an appeal testing the limits of split-second law enforcement discretion for using deadly force.
The family of the motorist, Donald Rickard, sued police, who argue they're immune from such legal action.
The Supreme Court has previously said law enforcement and government officials are generally shielded from "liability for civil damages" unless their conduct is egregious.
But state and federal courts have struggled with a broad application for high-speed pursuits, especially of those not implicated in a criminal offense.
Many police departments have specific policies about when to chase and when to hold back, but there are no national statistics on how jurisdictions handle such situations.
A 2004 study by the University of Washington showed 260 to 325 people were killed in high-speed crashes involving police, from 1994 to 2002.
The incident in question began in July 2004, when police in West Memphis, Arkansas, questioned Rickard at a gas station about a broken light on his white Honda.
He refused to step out the car and then took off. With his girlfriend, Kelly Allen, in the passenger seat, Rickard crossed over the Mississippi River into Tennessee along Interstate 40.
Police video could be key
Mounted cameras from three police vehicles, led by Officer Vance Plumhoff, show Rickard weaving in and out of traffic, then ramming a police car head-on.
The Honda is later surrounded and as the suspect tries to back up, he sideswipes another cop car, and almost strikes one of the officers.
The video then captures police firing 15 point-blank shots into the vehicle, as it drives away. The car then goes airborne and slams into a house in Memphis.
Rickard and Allen, both 44, were killed.
Rickard's daughter subsequently sued, saying unreasonable force was used, since her father was neither armed nor had just committed a serious criminal offense.
Plumhoff and two other officers were charged criminally but their case never went to trial. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati eventually ruled for the plaintiffs in their lawsuit.
The family's attorney, Gary Smith, said the appeals court properly concluded "the officers did not believe the suspects were armed, the severity of the underlying crime was low, and there was little threat posed to the officers -- the mere act of fleeing alone was insufficient to support a finding that deadly force was objectively reasonable."
But attorneys for police will tell the justices that Supreme Court precedent gives officers broad discretion in such instances, that there is a "governmental interest in ending the ongoing threat to the public from Rickard's dangerous propensities."
Precedent in 2007
Specifically, attorney Michael Mosely said the force in the 2004 Memphis incident was indistinguishable from the high court's ruling three years later in another, similar case.
There, the court concluded a Georgia police officer used "reasonable force" when ramming a young speeding motorist off the road, leaving him a paraplegic.
That 8-1 opinion gave law enforcement significant protection from similar lawsuits, even when no other serious felonies surrounding the chase may have been committed.
As in the Memphis case, the heart of the Harris appeal was videotape of the six-minute nighttime chase taken from a police vehicles.
The 2007 appeal was the first time the high court heard a case involving deadly force in police chases, and lower federal appeals courts have been split on the issue.
Under generally applied Supreme Court precedents, an officer must show a suspect poses a "significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others" before using deadly force.
But some judges have since concluded that officers can be stripped of qualified immunity from lawsuits, citing the fact-specific, subjective circumstances unique to each incident.
"The usual rule is you're not allowed to sue the police if they make a mistake," said CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. "But it's also a rule that if they do something really outrageous then you can sue. And the question in this case is how outrageous was the police behavior?"
The facts of both cases offer stark legal differences over how force should be applied in a broader context of police pursuits.
Law enforcement groups argued a ruling against Plumhoff would hamstring every police official, who would often have to make split-second decisions about whether to wait until someone gets hurt -- including innocent victims or the officer himself -- before they could stop escaping motorists.
"The question that has to be balanced is whether the public's, the public risk outweighs the benefit. And those things are context specific. They emerge in moments of time and that's what we pay police officers to do. Make those difficult decisions on our behalf as civilians so we can go about our daily lives," said Jon Shane, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"The tape itself is never conclusive because it's only one small part of an overall set of circumstances that takes place in a very short period of time. I can tell you that from what I've seen, it absolutely looks like it's consistent with policy," he said.
The case is Plumhoff v. Rickard (12-1117. A ruling is expected within three months.
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