SCOTUS Grants Immunity to Police Officer Who Used a Rifle to Kill a Reckless Motorist From an Overpass
Texas police officers went to a drive-in restaurant with a warrant in hand to arrest Isreal Leija Jr. but the 24 year-old did not want to be caught. Leija sped away in his Pontiac Grand Am leading police on an eighteen-minute high speed chase reaching speeds of up to 110 MPH. During the chase, Leija called police twice in order to warn them to back off, or he would shoot them. Police used spike strips in an attempt to force Leija to stop, thereby ending the risk to others.
Before Leija arrived at the location of the spike strips, Texas State Trooper, Chadrin Lee Mullenix, who had been counseled by supervisors for failing to be proactive; decided to set himself up on an overpass with his police-issue Bushmaster M4 and lay in wait for Leija. As soon as Lejia’s Grand Am came into sight, Mullenix fired six shots from his elevated position on the overpass into the vehicle. Leija was hit four times and killed, causing his vehicle to lose control and roll into the roadside. Mullenix was quoted as saying, “How’s that for being proactive?” to his colleagues.
Leija’s family brought suit, arguing that Mullenix’s actions were reckless and excessive. The courts considered whether Trooper Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity, shielding officers from civil liability so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known, for his actions. The District Judge and Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals found that immunity did not apply because at the time of the shooting Leija did not pose a threat to others on an empty roadway. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the Trooper did not violate the law because a murky legal question must be decided in favor of the police. In their per curiam opinion, the Court stated, “The fact is that when Mullenix fired, he reasonably understood Leija to be a fugitive fleeing arrest, at speeds over 100 miles per hour, who was armed and possibly intoxicated, who had threatened to kill any officer he saw if the police did not abandon their pursuit, and who was racing towards Officer Ducheneaux’s position” at the time. The Court concluded “qualified immunity protects actions in the ‘hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.'”(citation omitted).
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor argued that Mullenix was nothing more than a “rogue” officer who acted without authorization from his superiors, stating that Mullenix’s reasons were insufficient to justify his choice of shooting over following his superior’s orders – instructions to stand-by and wait for the spike strips. Justice Sotomayor stated further, “an appropriate reading of the record on summary judgment would thus render Mullenix’s choice even more unreasonable, and asking the appropriate legal question would leave the majority with no choice but to conclude that Mullenix ignored the long standing 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.” She concluded by writing that “by sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”
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