The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed a Texas police officer to avoid a civil suit for shooting and killing a fleeing suspect, despite two federal appeals court decisions that would have allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
In March 2010, DPS trooper Chadrin Mullenix fired his rifle six times from atop a highway overpass at suspect Israel Leija, Jr. who had been engaged in a high-speed chase with police. Minutes before the shooting, trained DPS officers had set up tire spikes at three strategic locations to disable Leija's vehicle in order to apprehend the suspect. Mullenix, who was never trained in shooting to disable a car in a high-speed chase, asked permission from his superior to fire at the approaching vehicle. The superior told him not to shoot, ordering Mullenix to "stand by" and "see if the spikes work first."
Mullenix shot anyway. None of the six bullets he fired hit the car's radiator, hood, or engine - which would have disabled the vehicle - but at least four shots hit Leija in the upper body, killing him at the scene.
Leija's mother brought a civil suit against Mullenix, alleging that the officer had violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against her son. In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Mullenix could face trial. That decision was later upheld after the entire Fifth Circuit, in a 9-6 ruling, refused to rehear the case.
On Monday, in an 8-1 decision, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit, finding that the officer's actions did not clearly violate a constitutional prohibition on excessive force and that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, meaning that Leija's mother will not be able to seek justice for her son through the courts.
In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the Court of "sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing [that] renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow." She noted, "When Mullenix confronted his superior officer after the shooting, his first words were, "How's that for proactive?" Justice Sotomayor described this "glib comment [as] revealing of the culture this Court's decision supports when it calls it reasonable-or even reasonably reasonable-to use deadly force for no discernible gain and over a supervisor's express order to "stand by.""
The court's decision comes amid massive, nationwide protests of police use of deadly force, whose victims are disproportionately African American. According to the Washington Post, 843 people have been shot dead by police this year alone.
Media Resources: U.S. Supreme Court 11/9/15; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 12/19/14; Washington Post, November 2015