November 9, 2015   |   Carey Wedler
November 9, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) Washington D.C. — On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled to exonerate a Texas state trooper who, against orders from his superior, lethally fired his gun at a driver involved in a high speed chase. Though the majority opinion argued the officer acted reasonably, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a scathing dissent against the decision.
The 2010 case involved Israel Leijas Jr., who had had been stopped by a Tulia, Texas, officer and informed he was wanted on a previously issued warrant. Leijas sped away, commencing a chase that reached speeds from 85 to over 100 miles per hour. As the chase began, the initial officer warned that Leijas might be intoxicated.
Leijas reportedly called police multiple times from his cell phone during the chase to warn officers he had a gun and would fire at them if they attempted to capture him.
Though officers planned to put spikes on the road at three different locations in an attempt to halt Leijas’ vehicle, Texas Department of Public Safety State Trooper Chad Mullenix wanted to shoot directly at the car to stop it. When he radioed his superior, Robert Byrd, to ask for permission, he was told to stand by until the car passed over spikes situated near an overpass where Mullenix was located. Byrd wanted to see if the spikes would effectively stop the vehicle before taking further action.
Moments before the car reached the spikes, however, Mullenix began firing at the vehicle — in direct defiance of Byrd’s orders. The car skidded into the spikes and flipped two and a half times. Though Leijas was killed in the vehicle, authorities determined he had not been killed by the crash, but by Mullenix’s bullets. The officer shot six times, hitting Leijas in the upper body four times.
Leijas’ family sued, arguing Mullenix used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Mullenix argued he was entitled to the qualified immunity often granted to public officials when they act in the line of duty. Though Mullenix initially prevailed after several court battles, in 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the prior ruling. Instead, it decided Mullenix was not entitled to immunity because the immediacy of the risk Leija posed was disputable.
On Monday, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, finding Mullenix entitled to immunity and therefore exonerated of his charges. In its unsigned per curiam ruling, the court said, “The doctrine of police immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” NBC reported, noting the court added “its previous rulings have never said that the use of deadly force during a dangerous car chase is automatically a constitutional violation.”
That conclusion was likely all but decided before the case even reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled on Mullenix v. Luna using only written briefings. It never heard verbal arguments or conducted a trial, which indicates “a sign that a majority of the justices considered the issue so clear cut that further briefing and courtroom argument were unnecessary,” NBC explained.
Only one justice, Sonia Sotomayor, objected to the opinion — and in doing so, indicted a philosophy that permeates police conduct in the United States.
She first noted that 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 officers, and less than a second before the car hit spike strips deployed to stop it.”
She argued that had the majority on the court correctly interpreted the case, they would have been left “with no choice but to conclude that 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.”
“By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”
In spite of her captivating dissent, the Supreme Court ruling signals an ominous future for further police brutality cases brought before the nation’s highest court.
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