Sotomayor: SCOTUS Has OK'd Police To "Shoot First, Think Later"

Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images.
A Supreme Court case that was quietly decided on Monday may have frightening implications for policing and community safety.

The case of Mullenix v. Luna, which was decided in a summary judgment yesterday, involved a high-speed car chase that ended in the death of the suspect. The undisputed facts of the case are these: Israel Leija, who had a warrant out for his arrest, encountered police at a fast-food restaurant in Texas. When officers tried to arrest him, Leija chose to flee, leading the officers on a nearly 20-minute high-speed car chase. In an attempt to stop the car, officers set up a spike strip.

In the meantime, Officer Chadrin Mullenix also responded and proposed shooting at Leija’s car. Mullenix’s superior officer told him to wait, but Mullenix was already positioning himself for the shot. As Leija approached, Mullenix fired six times. Four of those shots hit Leija in the upper body, killing him before he crashed the car. No shots hit the hood of the car or the engine.

What is in dispute, and what the case rests on, is more subtle: Did Mullinex have the opportunity to hear, and ignore, his superior’s order to wait, and was his action in taking the shots an excessive use of force, which is a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

The court, including the normally liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, ruled that because 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,” Mullenix was reasonable in his use of force, particularly in regard to his need to protect fellow officers in the line of danger.

Citing previous rulings, the justices also noted that “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 [to the officer].” Justice Scalia, writing a separate concurring opinion, added the rather grotesque argument that not all officer action that results in civilian death qualifies as “deadly force,” using the analogy of a tree pushed across the road to block the car hitting the car instead and killing the driver.

But Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter on the court, had some choice words about her colleagues’ ruling. “Instead of dealing with the question whether Mullenix could constitutionally fire on Leija’s car rather than waiting for the spike strips, the majority dwells on the imminence of the threat posed by Leija. The majority recharacterizes Mullenix’s decision to shoot at Leija’s engine block as a split-second, heat-of-the-moment choice, made when the suspect was ‘moments away.’ Indeed, reading the majority opinion, one would scarcely believe that Mullenix arrived at the overpass several minutes before he took his shot, or that the rural road where the car chase occurred had few cars and no bystanders or businesses.”

Sotomayor continued, “When Mullenix confronted his superior officer after the shooting, his first words were, ‘How’s that for proactive?’… The glib comment does not impact our legal analysis; an officer’s actual intentions are irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment’s ‘objectively reasonable’ inquiry. But the comment seems to me 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.’ By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”

In a time when the country is more and more concerned about police officers’ apparent overreliance on their firearms, it’s a resonant statement. Law-enforcement personnel accused of using excessive force that results in death have frequently used the excuse that they were “in fear of [their] life,” including in situations when victims were shot in the back while running away.

The Supreme Court has just made this excuse even more reliable.

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