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Supreme Court Sides With Cop in Contentious Shooting Case

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 10, 2015 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court sided with a Texas police officer this Monday, ruling that he had qualified immunity for shooting at, and killing, a fleeing suspect. In an unsigned, 8-1 per curiam opinion, the Court agreed that state trooper Chadrin Mullenix didn't violate any clearly established constitutional rights when opened fire on a vehicle fleeing from the police, killing the driver.

The sole dissenting voice was that of Justice Sotomayor, who argued that an untrained officer, firing into the dark at oncoming traffic, certainly violated unmistakable Fourth Amendment rights.

A Stop, a Chase, Six Shots

The case stems from the death of Israel Leija, Jr. In 2010, Leija was stopped at a drive-in restaurant in Tulia, Texas, and told he was under arrest for outstanding warrants. Instead of submitting, Leija sped off, leading officers on an 18-minute long chase at speeds 85 to 110 miles per hour. As officers laid out spike strips to stop the car, state trooper Mullenix considered firing at the vehicle to disable it. When Leija approached, Mullenix shot six times, striking Leija directly four times. The car stopped after driving over the spike strips immediately after.

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that trooper Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity against the Leija family's 1983 suit. Though his actions may have violated Leija's constitutional rights (they left the question open), there was no clearly established precedent at the time that would have put Mullenix on notice. The nearly unanimous ruling was in line with recent decisions. Last year, for example, the Court ruled for officers who opened fire on a car post-chase, killing its driver and passenger.

Scalia's Note on Language

Throughout the opinion, the Court refers Mullenix's acts as both "excessive force" and "deadly force." For example, in explaining the lack of clear precedent, the Court writes that "excessive force cases involving car chases reveal the hazy legal backdrop against which Mullenix acted." It also states what "deadly force requires a sufficient threat."

In a short concurring opinion, Justice Scalia took issue with the mixing of terms. According to Justice Scalia, "the application of deadly force in effecting arrest," and case law relying on such phrasing, should be used exclusively for incidents when deadly force is directed at harming the individual. Here, Mullenix was ostensibly shooting at the car, not attempting to harm Leija himself. Not all force that results in death, Scalia argued, is "deadly force."

Sotomayor Dissents

Justice Sotomayor, the sole dissenting voice throughout, wasn't buying it. The court, she argued, had endorsed Mullenix's "rogue conduct." Her characterization of the incident was clear and condemnatory: "Chadrin Mullenix fired six rounds in the dark at a car traveling 85 miles per hour. He did so without any training in that tactic, against the wait order of his superior officer, and less than a second before the car hit spike strips deployed to stop it."

That characterization wasn't enough to convince any other Justices. Justice Sotomayor was the only voice arguing that it was clear that "an officer in Mullenix's position should not have fired the shots."

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