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Officer acted reasonably using deadly force against a driver of a vehicle who led police on a chase.

This appeal involved a 1983 civil rights lawsuit under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and various state law claims against the Columbus Georgia, the chief of police, and an officer Brown from the department.  This is how the appellate court stated the issue.  Whether, after a high-speed chase, a police officer reasonably used deadly force when he stepped out of his vehicle to make an arrest and the suspect’s nearby car suddenly went into reverse.

Here are how the facts unfolded.  A car driven by the deceased led the officers from Columbus Police Department on a high speed chase across state lines before crashing into bushes on the side of the road.  The lead police vehicle driven by Officer Brown stopped behind and to the right of the car.  Seconds after Brown stepped out to make an arrest, the car’s reverse lights turned on, and the car started backing up.  Brown fired 11 shots through the back windshield and side windows as the car passed near him.  Then he changed magazines and fired another 10 shots.  The driver was killed, and his two passengers were injured.

The surviving passengers and the driver’s estate sued Brown for allegedly using excessive force during the encounter as well as the police chief and the county for supervisory liability.  The district court dismissed the case against the officer as to the first round but did not dismiss as to the second round.  Brown appealed the denial of a dismissal as to the second round.  The passengers and the estate appealed the dismissal in favor of the dismissal of the case as to the first round of shots.  The Court of appeal disagreed with the district court decision as to the second round and found that Brown acted reasonably in firing both rounds of shots and dismissed the case against the Officer.

Before crashing, the driver led the police on a high speed chase through commercial and residential areas and across state lines.  When the car shifted into reverse, the officer reasonably feared that his life was in danger.  Only a few seconds elapsed between when the officer got out of his vehicle and when the care started backing up.  A reasonable officer in hot pursuit could perceive that the chase was not yet over and that the driver would continue recklessly driving to evade arrest.   Because Brown was on foot and exposed to danger, the driver could have struck him as it drove past him just about two feet away from the officer.  In close proximity to a moving vehicle with only seconds to react, Brown had reason to believe that his life was in danger.  Therefore he could reasonably use deadly force to defend himself.

The appeals court found Brown was not liable in this federal §1983 civil right claim for shooting the driver because he reasonably continued to use deadly force when he fired the second round six seconds later.  A reasonable officer who had nearly been struck by a suspect’s moving vehicle could perceive that the vehicle, with its engine still running and headlights still shining as it faced him, remained a dangerous weapon that continued to pose a threat until the driver was fully secured.  Therefore, the court reversed the federal district court decision that no reasonable officer would have thought that the vehicle posed an imminent threat of serious harm when Brown fired the second round of shots.

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