Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused her fellow justices of sanctioning a “shoot first, think later” approach to police work after the high court sided with a Texas state trooper who was sued after he fatally shot a man fleeing from officers in 2010.
The court ruled earlier this week that Trooper Chadrin Mullenix cannot be held liable for the death of Israel Leija Jr. after shooting at his car from a highway overpass during a high-speed chase outside Amarillo, Texas.
Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, said Mullenix had no training in shooting to disable a vehicle, fired at the car less than a second before it hit spike strips deployed to stop it and acted against the order of his superior officer, who told him to wait.
She wrote in her dissent that Mullenix’s words to his superior officer after the shooting – “How’s that for proactive?” – is revealing to 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,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.
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According to the Guardian, she argued that “any reasonable officer could not have thought that shooting would stop the car with less danger or greater certainty than waiting.”
The Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion on Monday reversed a lower court decision that allowed a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Leija's family against Mullenix to go forward.
Mullenix said he shot at the car in an attempt to disable it after Leija led police on a 25-mile chase that reached speeds over 100 miles an hour, was reported to be intoxicated and had twice called a police dispatcher threatening to shoot officers if they did not stop pursuing him.
The majority said that Mullenix did not wait out of concern that Leija might try to shoot or run over officers manning the spike strips. Evidence showed that four of Mullenix's shots struck Leija's upper body, killing him. The car continued traveling over the spikes, hit the median and rolled over.
The justices said it was not "clearly established" that Mullenix used excessive force "by selecting one dangerous alternative over another."
“In this case, Mullenix confronted a reportedly intoxicated fugitive, set on avoiding capture through high-speed vehicular flight, who twice during his flight had threatened to shoot police officers, and who was moments away from encountering an officer,” they wrote, the Guardian reported. “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.”
A federal district court ruled that there were issues of fact as to whether Mullenix acted recklessly or as a reasonable officer would in similar circumstances. A federal appeals court agreed that there were questions about how immediate the risk was to officers.
Leija fled police after they tried to arrest him for a probation violation. Mullenix testified that he radioed his superior officer with the idea of shooting at the car to disable it. Before receiving a response, Mullenix got out of his car and took a shooting position on the overpass.
The supervisor, Sgt. Robert Byrd, told Mullenix to "stand by" and "see if the spikes work first." Mullenix testified that he didn't hear the order, but Leija's family argued that he could have heard the radio from where he was standing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.