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What Can Police Do in a High-Speed Chase?

Former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted today on first-degree murder charges stemming from the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Stockley shot Smith five times in his car following a three-minute chase during which Stockley allegedly said "We're killing this motherf*," ordered his partner to crash their patrol car into Smith's vehicle, and planted a gun in Smith's car after the fact.

Beyond the questions about yet another unpunished police shooting, there come questions about what police can legally do during a high speed pursuit: Are there any legal limits to police force once a chase has started?

Fleeing Is a Violent Felony

Can running from the cops be a crime in and of itself? Yes, according to the Supreme Court. Not only that, fleeing from the cops in a vehicle can be a violent felony under federal law. "Risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight," the court said. "It is well known that when offenders use motor vehicles as their means of escape they create serious potential risks of physical injury to others. Flight from a law enforcement officer invites, even demands, pursuit."

Injured Suspects Can't Sue

We've seen enough police pursuit shows to know that many, if not most, high speed chases end in a crash, often with officers intentionally ramming a fleeing suspect's car. Such was the case when officers rammed Victor Harris's Cadillac, flipping the car on its side and rendering Harris a quadriplegic. But the Supreme Court ruled the officer in question, although untrained in proper technique for ending vehicle chases, nevertheless used "reasonable force," and Harris couldn't sue the police for his injuries.

Limits to Deadly Force

In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that police may only use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing suspect if it is "necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." And in 2015, the Court said that force can include firing five rounds into a fleeing car (four of which struck and killed the driver), even if the officer doing the shooting has neither received training in this tactic nor attempted it before.

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