While Majority opined that “Qualified immunity protects actions in the “‘hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.’”, the Dissenting judge said “By sanctioning a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow”.
Supreme Court of United States have ruled that Qualified immunity applies to the actions of a law enforcement officer who uses lethal force against an intoxicated fugitive who had threatened to shoot other officers and was in the vicinity of an officer, since the use of lethal force in this context cannot be shown to be unreasonable beyond debate. The top court of the US has reversed a concurrent finding of the courts below that qualified immunity does not apply to Mullenix, the Police officer (Trooper) accused of using excessive and dangerous force against a fugitive.
Texas Trooper, Mullenix was accused of using a lethal force against a fleeing fugitive, Leija. Leija claimed to have a gun and threatening to shoot the officers and he was reportedly intoxicated. Officer Ducheneaux, who was trained in using tire spike strips, manned a spike strip beneath an overpass. Trooper Mullenix drove to that overpass, where he radioed a plan to shoot and disable the car. Mullenix asked the dispatcher to inform his supervisor, Byrd, of his plan before receiving a response, Mullenix took a shooting position. Byrd responded to “see if the spikes work first.” Approximately three minutes after Mullenix took his position, he spotted Leija’s vehicle and fired six shots. Leija’s car engaged the spikes, hit the median, and rolled. Leija was killed by Mullenix’s shots. Apparently, no shots hit the radiator, hood, or engine block. Leija’s estate sued Mullenix underMullenix unsuccessfully sought summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that immediacy of risk was a disputed fact. Mullenix approached the Supreme Court praying for a writ of Certiorari against the finding that he is not entitled to qualified immunity.
Police officers entitled to choose one dangerous alternative over another
The Court observed that Spike strips are dangerous not only to the drivers who encounter them at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour, but also to officers manning them. It also said that there is no precedent of the court to deny qualified immunity because officers are entitled to terminate a high-speed chase selected one dangerous alternative over another.
Officer apprehension justified.
Though it observed that there was no governmental interest that justified acting before Leija’s car hit the spikes, the Court said that the Officer feared Leija might attempt to shoot at or run over the officers manning the spike strips. Mullenix also feared that even if Leija hit the spike strips, he might still be able to continue driving in the direction of other officers. “Ultimately, whatever can be said of the wisdom of Mullenix’s choice, this Court’s precedents do not place the conclusion that he acted unreasonably in these circumstances “beyond debate.””, the Court said.
Actions in the “‘hazy border between excessive and acceptable force” are immune.
The court, taking not of the fact 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, said “ 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.’”
Intention was not to shoot Leija, but the engine.
Justice Scalia concurring with the judgment observed that Trooper Mullenix did not shoot to wound or kill the fleeing Leija, nor even to drive Leija’s car off the road, but only to cause the car to stop by destroying its engine. He added “That was a risky enterprise, as the outcome demonstrated; but determining whether it violated the Fourth Amendment requires us to ask, not whether it was reasonable to kill Leija, but whether it was reasonable to shoot at the engine in light of the risk to Leija. It distorts that inquiry, I think, to make the question whether it was reasonable for Mullenix to “apply deadly force.””
Majority view sanctions ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that neither the petitioner could not point to any possible marginal gain in shooting at the car over using the spike strips already in place nor there must be some governmental interest that necessitates deadly force, even if it is not always clearly established what level of governmental interest is sufficient. 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, Justice Sonia said. By sanctioning a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow, the dissenting judge added.
Read the Judgment here.