Eleventh Circuit Affirms Use of Deadly Force to Terminate High Speed Pursuit

By: Leonard J. Dietzen, III

03.30.15

In the midst of an era filled with negative national press related to law enforcement’s use of deadly force, the Eleventh Circuit recently issued an opinion recognizing the constitutionality of the use of lethal force to terminate high speed vehicle pursuits. “The use of deadly force can be constitutionally reasonable where a driver intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight from law enforcement.”

In Mock, an officer encountered a motorcycle closely matching a be on the lookout issued by another county. The motorcyclist refused to stop when the officer turned on his lights and siren and instead sped up to over 100 mph, passed vehicles crossing a double yellow line, passed vehicles using the shoulder of the road, evaded two road blocks, and lead three officers, from two different agencies, on a twenty-two mile high speed chase. The pursuit was ultimately terminated the motorcyclist was Tased, causing him to crash into a third roadblock that blocked the full roadway.

The Court, recognizing the danger of death or serious injury that the motorcyclists pursuit caused to the innocent public ruled as a matter of law that law enforcement was permitted to end this threat by the use of lethal force. The court rejected an argument that the use of deadly force was improper on account of the fact that the only crime observed prior to engaging in the pursuit was speeding, recognizing the Supreme Court of the United States’ retreat from the rigid three part test set forth in Tennessee v. Garner. Instead, the court noted that the only relevant inquiry was to balance the “nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” In instances where the fleeing suspect places the lives and safety of the public or officers in harms way the balance weighs in favor of the use of deadly force.

The Court similarly rejected motorcyclist’s argument that the danger to the public could have been eliminated just as easily had the officers discontinued the chase and let him go. “we are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people's lives in danger. It is obvious the perverse incentives such a rule would create: Every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times, and runs a few red lights.”

Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit case law clearly establishes an officer’s right to use deadly force to terminate high speed pursuits that pose a danger to the public or officer’s safety. However, caution and careful consideration should always be used before engaging in a high speed pursuit as such actions expose the law enforcement agencies to significant liability in the event a member of the public is injured or killed during a pursuit, unless the pursuit is to stop a suspect who has committed a forcible felony, and is conducted pursuant to a written policy governing high speed pursuits.

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