(TRI) — WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court has given a green light to police officers to use deadly force against drivers if police suspect they might pose a danger to others with their car.
In refusing to hear an appeal in Gordon v. Bierenga, the Supreme Court has let stand the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that granted qualified immunity to a Michigan police officer who shot and killed a man in a drive-thru lane at a White Castle after observing the driver make a series of traffic violations that nearly caused collisions. Although Antonino Gordon had not caused an accident or injured anyone while being observed or followed in his car by the police officer for almost 30 minutes, the Sixth Circuit concluded that police can use excessive force preemptively against a driver if they fear he might endanger others.
“Cops who feel empowered to act as judge, jury and executioner are not making America any safer,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This is yet another chilling reminder that in the American police state, ‘we the people’ are at the mercy of police officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with those they were appointed to protect.”
In April 2018, a police officer in Royal Oak, Mich., observed Antonino Gordon, who was driving a BMW, merge lanes quickly after turning onto a busy road and later make a sharp left turn into a White Castle parking lot, and drive opposite the designated flow of parking lot traffic before getting into the drive-thru. The officer parked diagonally in front of Gordon’s car to block him from leaving the drive-thru, and approached Gordon with his gun drawn. Gordon drove at a relatively low speed in reverse and bumped the car behind him, pulled forward into the officer’s rear wheel, backed up again, and then turned his wheels away from the officer who had his gun pointed directly at Gordon and yelled for Gordon to stop. As Gordon drove away, the officer fired four shots, striking Gordon twice and causing him to lose consciousness, drift across the center lane of a busy road, and crash into an oncoming car. Gordon later died at the hospital.
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Although the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that “deadly force is generally not justified once the car moves away, leaving the officer and bystanders in a position of safety,” it granted qualified immunity to the officer, without letting a jury decide whether the officer used excessive force in violation of Gordon’s Fourth Amendment rights. Despite its finding that “Gordon’s reckless driving did not demonstrate an obvious willingness to endanger the public by leading the police on chases at very high speeds and through active traffic,” the court held that an officer may shoot when “the officer’s prior interactions with the driver suggest that the driver will continue to endanger others with his car.” In failing to hold the officer accountable for shooting and killing Gordon, the Sixth Circuit found that Gordon’s right not to be shot in this situation was not “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.