Supreme Court Action: Qualified Immunity When Deadly Force is Used By Officers During A Car Chase

The Supreme Court issued one opinion today.  The case, Mullenix v. Luna (14-1143), decided whether a Texas state trooper (Mullenix) was entitled to qualified immunity when he fired shots at a suspect’s car during a high speed chase, killing the suspect.  The Court’s restatement of the facts show that Israel Leija, Jr. resisted an attempt to arrest him and fled in his car.  Another officer, Sergeant Randy Baker, pursued Leija in a chase reaching speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour.  Other officers joined the pursuit.  Leija called local police dispatchers twice and informed them that he was armed and would shoot officers if the chase was not called off.  This information was relayed to the pursuing officers along with information that Leija may be intoxicated.

Some officers set up road spikes at a location Leija was expected to pass.  Mullenix intended to set up spikes as well but decided he might disable the car by shooting at it.  He radioed his decision to his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, who said to stand by and see if the spikes worked first.  Mullenix was joined by  Officer Shipman and they discussed Mullenix’ plan to shoot at the car.  Leija approached and Mullenix fired six shots.  Leija’s car hit the spikes and rolled over two and a half times.  Four of six shots Mullenix fired hit Leija in the upper body and killed him.  There was no evidence that any of the bullets hit any portion of the car that could have disabled it.

Leija’s family sued Mullenix on civil rights violations, specifically that Leija’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  Mullenix filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.  The district court denied the motion and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.  The Fifth Circuit withdrew its first opinion but substantially upheld the denial in a second opinion.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It stated the standard for applying qualified immunity is whether the conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The Court explained that lower courts should not apply the standard in a general sense and that the application is fact dependent.  The Court noted there were only two prior cases where it ruled on excessive/deadly force involving car chases.  In those two:

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.

Further, lower court cases decided subsequently have not established that the use of force in situations similar to the present case is inappropriate.  The mere fact that other courts have found the level of force appropriate in more extreme cases does not render the use inappropriate here.

The Court issued the case as a per curiam opinion.  Justice Scalia concurred in the judgment.  Justice Sotomayor dissented.

Mark

 

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