WASHINGTON -- Police gained added authority yesterday to shoot to kill prisoners who try to escape from jail or from police custody, as the Supreme Court turned aside a significant new case on the issue.
Without comment, the court voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that strict constitutional limits on police use of "deadly force" do not apply once the suspect is in custody -- in a jail, a police station, or a police car or van.
Even if a fleeing prisoner is not armed and is not considered dangerous, police may shoot to stop the escape, the lower court said in a decision in August.
The police, that court said, need show only that they acted in "good faith" to try to prevent the escape or to control the situation.
The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case does not mean that the justices would have ruled the same way, and the action does not create a nationwide precedent. But it does mean that police may seek to rely on the lower-court decision until another court disagrees with it or the Supreme Court takes on the issue in some future case.
Previously, the Supreme Court had ruled that before a suspect has been arrested and taken into custody, it is unconstitutional for police to use deadly force unless the fleeing suspect is armed or considered dangerous.
In the new case, the federal appeals court said the constitutional rules change once the individual becomes a prisoner under police control.
At that point, the appeals court said, police have greater authority to control what the prisoner does.
The appeals court ruled that sheriff's deputies in Houston acted constitutionally when they shot a man as he tried to duck under a closing garage door after a police car had brought him to jail. The man, Roland Brothers Jr., had been arrested hours earlier on a charge of auto theft.
He was about to be placed in the jail when he got out of the police car and ran. Police shot 12 times, killing Mr. Brothers. His wife, two children and father filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming that the Harris County sheriff has a policy allowing officers to shoot to kill -- even without warning -- to stop a fleeing prisoner.
That claim was rejected by lower courts, and the Supreme Court refused to consider it.
In another order yesterday, the court refused to hear a constitutional complaint, from a parent in Florida, about the use of witch costumes and witchcraft symbols in a Halloween celebration at a public school.
The parent contended that witchcraft is a form of religion, practiced by adherents of the Wicca faith, and that it was unconstitutional for a public school's staff to use the symbols of that faith at school.
A lower court rejected the challenge, saying that the Halloween pTC celebration was designed only to provide fun for students, and not to promote religion. The Supreme Court gave no reason for bypassing the case.