The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]”  Under what is known as a §1983 Action, persons who have been arrested, abused, or otherwise restrained by “excessive force” may be able to assert their rights under the Fourth Amendment and bring a civil lawsuit against the police and government. However, the assertion of these rights often involves daunting and complicated legal matters.

In the spring of 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States will further explain the limits and boundaries for an individual to bring an “excessive force” lawsuit against law enforcement officials and agencies in the case of Plumhoff v. Rickard. In this case, Donald Rickard and Kelly Allen were killed after being pursued by law enforcement. The families of the deceased brought a lawsuit against the police officers for, among other things, violating the deceased’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

This tragic event all began from what first appeared to be a harmless traffic stop.  On July 18, 2004, an Arkansas police officer pulled the plaintiffs’ car over for having only one operating headlight. However, the officer noticed an indentation in the car’s windshield, which led to further questions by the officer. Then, the officer asked Donald Rickard to get out of his vehicle. Instead of getting out of the car, Mr. Rickard sped away and the police chase began.

Mr. Rickard fled to a nearby freeway and additional officers pursued. Later, Mr. Rickard got off the freeway and his vehicle made contact with a police cruiser. Mr. Rickard’s car then spun out of control in a parking lot and police surrounded the vehicle with their cruisers. After what appeared to be another attempt to speed away, police then got out of their cruisers with guns drawn and approached the vehicle. The officers claim that Mr. Rickard was revving his engine and trying to flee the scene again, which is a fact the plaintiffs contest.

Soon after noise was coming from the engine, one police officer fired three shots at the vehicle.  Mr. Rickard then reversed his vehicle and tried to get away. This prompted other officers to discharge their firearms at close range. Mr. Rickard lost control of the vehicle, crashed his car into a building, and both Mr. Rickard and Kelly Allen died.  Of the fifteen shots directed at the vehicle, all but two of the bullets struck the driver and passenger.

Certainly, the families of the plaintiffs are correct in their belief that officers firing repeatedly at the plaintiffs may constitute excessive force and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, officers can escape liability if they can show that their actions were not unreasonable. Ultimately, in the present case, the Supreme Court will decide if a jury could find that the police officers’ use of their weapons was unreasonable. In the past, the Supreme Court has declared that a police officer who uses his car to ram a vehicle from behind in a high speed pursuit is not acting unreasonably, but in consideration of the different facts of this case, the Court may very well come to an opposite conclusion and find that firing a lethal weapon repeatedly at a surrounded and slow moving vehicle may be considered unreasonable. The legal community and nation will be on the lookout for the Court’s decision on this controversial issue.

Often times, police brutality cases require specific knowledge and advanced expertise in the realm of Constitutional/Civil Rights Law. Not only must a good attorney be up to date with the frequent changes in Constitutional Law, but he or she should have advanced speaking and legal writing skills to effectively communicate the complicated facts and law in your favor. In addition, your attorney should be mindful of the numerous and nuanced tactical decisions involved in an “excessive force” case, such as whether to bring non-constitutional law claims in addition to or in place of your constitutional law claims, whether the officer(s) will have a valid defense or claim of immunity, and whether your case has a higher likelihood of success in a federal or state court.

The Trial Lawyers at Villari, Lentz, and Lynam are fully prepared to fight for your rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

References used:

Estate of Allen v. City of W. Memphis, 509 F. App’x 388 (6th Cir. 2012) cert. granted, 134 S. Ct. 635, 187 L. Ed. 2d 415 (U.S. 2013)

Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007).

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