Supreme Court: Officer Justified in Killing Suspect Fleeing in High Speed Chase
The Texas Police Department followed Israel Lieja (deceased - his interest represented by Luna) because there was a warrant for his arrest. When approached by the police, Leija drove off and was followed by police on a high speed chase. On top of that, Leija called the Police and told the dispatcher he had a gun and would shoot if the police did not abandon their chase. As opposed to abandon the chase, the Police Officers maintained the pursuit and set up tire spikes at three locations. One officer, Trooper Chadrin Mullenix, in responding to the scene decided that he would shoot at the car instead of setting up spike strips in an effort to disable the car.
Trooper Mullenix never received any training in this regard but he ran it by his superior officers. One superior thought that it was "worth doing." Pp. 2 (quoting 773 F.3d 712, 716-717). Mullenix took a safe position from the chase and fired six shots at the car, killing Leija and forcing the car (travelling at over 80 M.P.H.) to roll twice before coming to a halt. This lawsuit was brought alleging that Mullenix violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against Leija.
Procedural History: Mullenix moved and the District Court denied his request for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. He appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Fifth Circuit heard the case again, en banc. "The majority concluded that Mullenix’s actions were objectively unreasonable because several of the factors that had justified deadly force in previous cases were absent here: There were no innocent bystanders, Leija’s driving was relatively controlled, Mullenix had not first given the spike strips a chance to work, and Mullenix’s decision was not a split-second judgment." Pp. 4 (citing 773 F.3d at 720-724). The Fifth Circuit concluded that, absent a sufficiently substantial and immediate threat, such deadly use of force violated the Fourth Amendment. Remember, this officer is responding to setup a spike strip and was not engaged in a chase. The shots fired were done so from a rifle within a safe distance from the car - rather than hit the car (engine block, tires, etc.), the officer hit the driver, killing him.
Reversed: The Supreme Court reviews this case for the narrow question of qualified immunity. As one would suspect, the Supreme Court reviews the two seminal cases dealing with shootings by police during high-speed chases: Scott v. Harris, 550 US 372 and Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 US __ (2014). The Supreme Court sets down the standard: "The Court has thus never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity." Pp. 8. "In this case, Mullenix confronted a reportedly intoxicated fugitive, set on avoiding capture through high-speed vehicular flight, who twice during his flight had threatened to shoot police officers, and who was moments away from encountering an officer at Cemetery Road...By the time Mullenix fired, Leija had led police on a 25-mile chase at extremely high speeds, was reportedly intoxicated, had twice threatened to shoot officers, and was racing towards an officer’s location." Pp. 7.
The Majority of the Supreme Court scolds the dissent because of the dissent focus on alternatives to shooting the driver. "Spike strips, however, present dangers of their own, not only to drivers who encounter them at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour, but also to officers manning them." Pp. 8. Indeed, "Mullenix explained, however, that he feared Leija might attempt to shoot at or run over the officers manning the spike strips." Pp. 9. The officer here feared that the possibility of harm from setting up, manning, and disabling the speeding vehicle via the spike strips. Without commenting on other decisions handed down by the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court holds that the caselaw within the Fifth Circuit does not "clearly dictate the conclusion that Mullenix was unjustified in perceiving grave danger and responding accordingly, given that Leija was speeding towards a confrontation with officers he had threatened to kill." Pp. 10.
Justice Scalia concurs in the judgment but writes separately because he does not feel that deadly force was applied in this instance: "determining whether it violated the Fourth Amendment requires us to ask, not whether it was reasonable to kill Leija, but whether it was reasonable to shoot at the engine in light of the risk to Leija." Justice Sotomayor was the lone dissent. Perhaps the only voice of reason, Justice Sotomayor states the obvious in that Mullenix had no training to shoot the engine block or tires of a speeding car, he was not authorized to do so and Mullenix did this from a safe vantage point as opposed to an officer making split decisions. Indeed, "Mullenix ignored the longstanding and well-settled Fourth Amendment rule that there must be a governmental interest not just in seizing a suspect, but in the level of force used to effectuate that seizure." Justice Sotomayor ends her dissent with a strong admonition:
By sanctioning a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.
The case is Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. ____ (Nov. 9, 2015), accessible here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1143_f20h.pdf.