Over the last several years, we have looked at a few civil cases involving pursuits. Frankly, few plaintiffs bring Section 1983 claims alleging improper police actions in motor vehicle pursuit cases because the precedent case law does not typically favor plaintiffs. But before we look at the facts in this case and the 5th Circuit Court’s opinion, let’s be clear – the fact that there are not a lot of successful federal plaintiffs in these cases does not mean officers are free to take any action they deem appropriate to continue or stop a pursuit. Your agency surely has a directive that provides specific guidelines concerning your actions during a pursuit, and while plaintiffs may not be successful on federal claims, they may still be successful in state court.
We will look at a recent case – Morrow v Meachum1 – out of the 5th Circuit. Where the court was tasked with determining whether an officer was entitled to Qualified Immunity based on his actions during the pursuit of a motorcyclist for traffic violations.
In June of 2014 the defendant officer – Jonathan Meachum – was patrolling on I-20 in Cisco, Texas, when he observed Austin Moon recklessly operating his motorcycle at speeds well over the established speed limit. Meachum gave chase but soon lost the motorcyclist who had exited the highway and was hiding behind gasoline pumps at a service station. An Eastland Deputy Sheriff observed Moon and Moon quickly raced away from behind the pumps, pulled a wheelie, and headed south down Route 183 at speeds over 100 MPH.
Detective Meachum had been monitoring the pursuit and was ahead of Moon and the Deputy on Route 183 traveling south at 100 MPH. The Deputy and the motorcyclist were behind Meachum traveling in excess of 150 MPH. Route 183 was described as a two-lane undivided road with rolling hills. As Meachum reached the top of a hill, he observed two cars heading towards him in the northbound lane and the sheriff and motorcyclist closing quickly from behind. Over a period of seven seconds, Meachum slowed his SUV from 100 MPH to 56 MPH and moved from the right side of the lane to straddle the center line. Less than a second later the motorcyclist struck the rear of the police SUV and died of his injuries.
Meachum testified he performed a “rolling road block” because he wanted to discourage Moon from passing in the oncoming lane and to warn the oncoming traffic of the pursuit. It is also important to note that the entire pursuit was recorded on the officers’ dashboard camera systems. The video footage was entered into evidence and showed the officers’ speeds and the fact that civilian vehicles were approaching in the northbound lane.
Moon’s estate brought a Section 1983 claim alleging that the defendant officer intentionally positioned his vehicle in such a manner as to surprise Moon and prevent him from eluding the officers, causing his death. Finding that the law is clear that “a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death”, the trial court granted Qualified Immunity and dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed.
5th Circuit Findings
Recognizing that the U.S. Supreme Court has issued 11 decisions in the last 5 years that reversed appellate courts on the issue of Qualified Immunity, the court looked closely at the law concerning the use of deadly force during pursuits. The question for the court was whether the law, as it stood at the time of the incident, clearly established that use of a rolling roadblock or deadly force was clearly prohibited where the chase involved a motorcyclist wanted only for motor vehicle violations.
Citing the Supreme Court rulings in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 386 (2007), Mullenix v Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308 (2015) and other pursuit cases, the 5th Circuit determined it was not clearly established that the officer’s actions were prohibited under the 4th Amendment.
Before everybody jumps in their cruiser and goes out looking for a speeding motorcyclist to chase, it’s important to review a few significant things. First, this is a 5th Circuit opinion that is narrowly drawn based on the facts presented to the court. Moreover, other circuits have sent cases back to the trial courts to determine whether the use of a rolling roadblock was unreasonable where the vehicle being pursued was a motorcycle.
Additionally, we are only discussing liability where the claims are based on a Section 1983 cause of action – basically claims alleging a federal constitutional violation. Your state may have a precedent case law that finds liability in negligence or tort actions.
Finally, whether your agency has issued the Daigle Law Group Pursuit Policy or you have your own agency directive, that directive will most likely limit pursuits of motorcycles. It is imperative that you are familiar with this directive and follow it.
1 916 F.3d 676 (5th Cir. 2019)