Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas state trooper who shot a fleeing suspect was within his rights to use deadly force. Justice Sonja Sotomayor dissented—and called into question the Court’s support of the Fourth Amendment.
In March 2010, an officer attempted to carry out an arrest warrant for Israel Leija Jr. Leija led officers on a high-speed chase on a highway near the town of Tulia. During the chase, he called the police dispatcher and threatened to shoot officers who were pursuing him. Chadrin L. Mullenix, a state trooper perched at an overpass, was instructed to see if the tire spikes other officers had put down disabled the car. But Mullenix decided to shoot at the car, a tactic he wasn’t trained to use. He hit Leija with four bullets, killing him.
Leija’s mother sued, saying that the trooper violated her son’s Fourth Amendment rights when he used excessive force to stop him. Mullenix argued that he was protected from civil suit by qualified immunity, because his conduct did “not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”
After winding through the lower courts, the Supreme Court took up the case, Chadrin Lee Mullenix v Beatrice Luna. Their task was to decide if the trooper should enjoy the protection of qualified immunity, which rests on two tests: Did he violate a constitutional right? And would a reasonable official have realized that he was violating that right? The Court’s unsigned opinion found in favor of Mullenix:
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. Even accepting that these circumstances fall somewhere between the two sets of cases respondents discuss, qualified immunity protects actions in the “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.”
Justice Sotomayor was the only person to file a dissenting opinion.* In it, she says that the Fourth Amendment clearly establishes that Mullenix should never have fired his gun into the car and that the court, in letting him off the hook, is effectively giving the green light to police violence:
…Mullenix ignored the longstanding 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.
When Mullenix confronted his superior officer after the shooting, his first words were, “How’s that for proactive?” (Mullenix was apparently referencing an earlier counseling session in which Byrd suggested that he was not enterprising enough.) The glib comment does not impact our legal analysis; an officer’s actual intentions are irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment’s “objectively reasonable” inquiry. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386, 397 (1989). 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.
*Note: For readability, we’ve removed the citation "Ibid" from the excerpt of Sotomayor’s opinion. Please use the actual opinion linked above for formal documentation.