Monday, November 16, 2015

Supreme Court Shoots Down Excessive Force Case

On November 9, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that qualified immunity protected a state trooper who shot and killed a dangerous driver in Mullenix v. Luna.

On March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Texas Police Department followed Israel Leija to a drive-in restaurant with a warrant for his arrest. When Sergeant Baker approached Leija's vehicle and told him he was under arrest, Leija sped off and a high speed chase ensued. During the case, Leija called dispatch and threatened to shoot any officer he saw if they did not abandon pursuit. Leija was also intoxicated.

State Trooper Chandrin Mullenix also responded to the call. While other officers set up three sets of spike strips in hopes of disabling Leija's vehicle, Mullenix called dispatch to propose shooting to stop Leija's car. Mullenix's supervisor instructed him to "stand by" and "see if the spike strips worked first." However, it was unclear whether Mullenix heard his supervisor's command.

Once Mullenix spotted Leija's vehicle coming up the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots. Four bullets hit Leija in his upper body, killing him.

The issue for the Court was whether Mullenix violated clearly established law. Qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent and those who knowingly violate the law." The Court found no clearly established law barred Mullenix from claiming qualified immunity. As such, Mullenix was entitled to summary judgment against plaintiffs' claim of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In the sole dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued Mullenix should have waited to see if the spike strips worked before shooting. The majority of the Court was not persuaded. The Court emphasized that spike strips don't always work and officers manning those strips are vulnerable to gunfire. According to the majority, Sotomayor's reasoning was in error. Namely, it is not for the courts to decide whether an officer should use one tactic over another.

Although the Court refrained from considering what tactics and officer should use, many agencies' use of force policies do. Some agencies are now moving toward banning the practice of shooting at cars to disable the vehicle. In such cases, an officer may be immune from civil liability, but can still be punished by the department for insubordination or violation of policy.