The United States Supreme Court (USSC) has recently made a ruling on the legality of police officers shooting at suspects fleeing in motor vehicles. The case is Mullenix v. Luna, and the decisions are binding on all law enforcement officers in the United States. The decision of the Court is not conclusive for all situations involving a fleeing suspect in a vehicle, but the Court seems to providing a strong foundation for the 4th Amendment arguments regarding situations like this.
The incident started in Texas, and was brought before the proper U.S. District Court by the suspect’s family based upon a 42 U.S.C. 1983 Civil Rights violation. In essence the family believed that excessive force (4th Amendment) was used. The officers sought Summary Judgement based upon Qualified Immunity, which are key legal doctrines that every officer should be very familiar with. This article will present the case, and discuss the decisions of the three U.S. Courts to put hands on the case.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This case is being presented for its strong implications on all law enforcement officers in regards to the use of deadly force on a fleeing suspect. As noted, the U.S. Supreme Court decision here is not conclusive for all incidents, and officers should take note of the important fact. The BlueSheepDog Crew desire to present these Court decisions to spark debate and study of the legal principles that guide how we carry out our duty. The BSD Crew are not attorneys, and this article is not intended in any manner to be legal advice. The BSD Crew do not support officers acting solely on this article, but instead recommend officers contact their Department Legal Advisor, local Prosecutors, and abide by their individual Department policies in regards to the use of lethal force.
Mullenix v. Luna
In this case the United States Supreme Court considered the Constitutional implications of a high-speed chase where a Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper shot into the fleeing vehicle from an overpass in an attempt to disable the vehicle. When the shooting occurred, he shot the driver four times in the upper body killing him.
The High-Speed Pursuit
On the night of March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Tulia, Texas Police Department located Israel Leija, Jr., and followed him to a drive-in restaurant, with the intent to arrest him on a warrant. When Sgt. Baker contacted Leija in his car he informed him that he was under arrest. Instead of complying with the arrest, Leija sped off headed for I-27. Sgt. Baker gave chase, and radioed the situation. He was quickly joined by Trooper Gabriel Rodriguez of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Leija entered I-27 and led the officers on an 18-minute long high-speed chase, at speeds between 85 – 110 mph. On two separate occasions during the chase, Leija called the Tulia Police dispatcher, claiming to be armed with a gun. Each time he threatened to shoot at the police officers if they did not abandon their pursuit. This information was relayed by the dispatcher to the pursuing officers. Additionally, information was received and broadcast, that indicated that Leija might be intoxicated.
During the pursuit, other law enforcement officers set up tire spikes at three locations. Officer Troy Ducheneaux of the Canyon Police Department was one of those officers. He manned the spike strip at the first location Leija was expected to reach, beneath the overpass at Cemetery Road. Ducheneaux and the other officers were trained on the deployment of spike strips, including taking a defensive position so as to minimize the risk posed by the passing driver.
DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix also responded to the Cemetery Road overpass, intending to set up spike strips there. When he found out Officer Ducheneaux had already set up spike strips, Mullenix considered another tactic: shooting at Leija’s car in order to disable it. Trooper Mullenix had not received training in this tactic, and had not attempted it before, but he radioed the idea to Trooper Rodriguez who was in pursuit of Leija. Trooper Rodriguez responded “10- 4,” provided his updated position, and said that Leija had slowed to 85 miles per hour. Trooper Mullenix then asked the DPS dispatcher to inform his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, of his plan and ask Byrd if he thought his plan was a viable option. Before receiving Sgt. Byrd’s response, Trooper Mullenix took up a shooting position, armed with his service rifle, on the overpass, 20 feet above I- 27.
Trooper Mullenix Shoots Leija
Respondents allege that from this position, Trooper Mullenix could still hear Sgt. Byrd’s response to “stand by,” and “see if the spikes work first.” As Trooper Mullenix waited for Leija to arrive, he and Randall County Sheriff ‘s Deputy Tom Shipman, discussed whether Mullenix’s plan would work. The two officers conversed about how and where to shoot the vehicle to best carry out the plan. Deputy Shipman also informed Mullenix that another officer was located beneath the overpass.
Approximately 3 minutes after Trooper Mullenix took up his shooting position, he spotted Leija’s vehicle, with Trooper Rodriguez in pursuit. As Leija approached the overpass, Trooper Mullenix fired six shots. Leija’s car continued underneath the overpass, engaged the spike strip, and then hit the median, and rolled two and a half times. A later medical examination determined that Leija had been killed by Trooper Mullenix’s shots, four of which struck Leija’s upper body. There was no evidence that any of Trooper Mullenix’s shots hit the car’s radiator, hood, or engine block.
Leija’s Family Sues Trooper Mullenix
Respondents sued Trooper Mullenix under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that the Trooper had violated the 4th Amendment by using excessive force against Leija. Trooper Mullenix moved for Summary Judgment on the ground of Qualified Immunity, but the U.S. District Court denied his motion, finding that “[t]here are genuine issues of fact as to whether Trooper Mullenix acted recklessly, or acted as in a reasonable, trained peace officer would have acted in the same or similar circumstances.”
Trooper Mullenix appealed the denial of Summary Judgment to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the 5th Circuit affirmed the U.S District Court’s ruling. The 5th Circuit agreed that the “immediacy of the risk posed by Leija is a disputed fact that a reasonable jury could find either in the plaintiffs’ favor or in the officer’s favor, precluding us from concluding that Mullenix acted objectively reasonably as a matter of law.”
NOTE: The legal principles of Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity are important doctrines that every officers should be familiar with. Whenever a lawsuit is filed alleging an officer has committed a Constitutional Violation; such as, excessive force as an unreasonable seizure of the person under the 4th Amendment, the two legal strategies used to defend the officer and have the case thrown out before it ever gets to trial are Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity.
In a Summary Judgment motion, the officer asserts that even if the Court takes the story of the person suing the officer as true, (though the officer may not agree with that story), the officer did not do anything unconstitutional and the officer is entitled to Summary Judgment. In other words, the Court reviews the facts of the case (even the accusations) and agree that the officer’s actions were constitutional. Since the actions are constitutional there is no basis to continue the case to trial.
If the Court agrees with the Plaintiff’s that the officer’s actions were unconstitutional, the officer then proceeds to Qualified Immunity. In essence, Qualified Immunity asserts that even if the officer’s actions were unconstitutional, no Court in the officer’s jurisdiction, has considered a similar case. Therefore the law was not clearly established, making it impossible for the officer to know their actions were unconstitutional. If the law is not clearly established, the officer gets Qualified Immunity and the case against the officer is dismissed.
In recent years, with several high-profile cases, many citizens have been outraged that Courts granted Qualified Immunity to officers. However, the Courts are just as likely to dismiss cases against citizens when the law is not clearly defined. It is a 2-way road meant to provide each side impartiality and justice. For example, if a speed limit sign is obstructed or knocked down, and a citizen gets a citation for speeding in that area, a Court would be legally inclined to dismiss the case if the evidence of the missing speed limit sign is introduced.
No Summary Judgment From U.S. Supreme Court
In Mullenix v. Luna, the United States Supreme Court decided not to answer the question of Summary Judgment. This is very important to law enforcement officers, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to evaluate Summary Judgment means that this case DOES NOT establish new case-law precedence on shooting at fleeing suspects in vehicles.
By not considering Summary Judgment, the Supreme Court did not make a decision on whether it was Constitutional for Trooper Mullenix to shoot from an overpass at a fleeing vehicle under the circumstances he faced. Unfortunately, that means the use of lethal force in that manner is in the gray, and murky area of the law surrounding the 4th Amendment’s requirements on how persons are seized.
A prudent officer would glean from the U.S. Supreme Court’s avoidance of the Summary Judgment consideration, that shooting at fleeing suspects in vehicles from overpasses should not be a consideration unless there are extremely aggravating circumstances. In this case, Leija fled arrest on a probation violation, and his actions during the high-speed pursuit are noteworthy. Exceeding speeds of 100 mph this was a very dangerous situation for any innocent motorist on I-27 in that area. In addition, Leija told police dispatchers twice that he was armed and would shoot police officers. Finally, a report that Leija was intoxicated only compounded the danger created by his high-speed fleeing.
However compelling this facts are, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to look at the Constitutionality of Trooper Mullenix’s actions. This should give pause to officers before considering this option. Perhaps if Leija was actually shooting at officers, or waving a gun, and not just making verbal threats, the actions of Trooper Mullenix would have been clearer to the High Court and a ruling could have been forwarded. As such, officers must know that shooting at vehicles from overpasses is not clearly a Constitutional tactic to end a high-speed pursuit – at least in similar circumstances as found in Mullenix v. Luna.
U.S. Supreme Court Considers Qualified Immunity
Held: The law is not clearly established as to whether Trooper Mullenix’s shooting at a fleeing vehicle, where the driver had threatened to shoot police officers; was possibly intoxicated; and led law enforcement on a one hundred mile an hour chase, was unconstitutional. Therefore, Trooper Mullenix was granted Qualified Immunity. Since Qualified Immunity was granted, the 4th Amendment claim against him was dismissed.
In finding that the law was not clearly established the Supreme Court noted:
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 at Cemetery Road. The relevant inquiry is whether existing precedent placed the conclusion that Mullenix acted unreasonably in these circumstances “beyond debate.” The general principle that deadly force requires a sufficient threat hardly settles this matter. See Pasco v. Knoblauch, 566 F. 3d 572, 580 (CA5 2009) (“[I]t would be unreasonable to expect a police officer to make the numerous legal conclusions necessary to apply Garner to a highspeed car chase . . .”).
Far from clarifying the issue, excessive force cases involving car chases reveal the hazy legal backdrop against which Mullenix acted. In Brosseau itself, the Court held that an officer did not violate clearly established law when she shot a fleeing suspect out of fear that he endangered “other officers on foot who [she] believed were in the immediate area,” “the occupied vehicles in [his] path,” and “any other citizens who might be in the area.” The threat Leija posed was at least as immediate as that presented by a suspect who had just begun to drive off and was headed only in the general direction of officers and bystanders. By the time Mullenix fired, Leija had led police on a 25-mile chase at extremely high speeds, was reportedly intoxicated, had twice threatened to shoot officers, and was racing towards an officer’s location.
This Court has considered excessive force claims in connection with high-speed chases on only two occasions since Brosseau. In Scott v. arris, 550 U. S. 372, the Court held that an officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment by ramming the car of a fugitive whose reckless driving “posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase.” Id., at 384. And in Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U. S. ___ (2014), the Court reaffirmed Scott by holding that an officer acted reasonably when he fatally shot a fugitive who was “intent on resuming” a chase that “pose[d] a deadly threat for others on the road.” 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 10).
The Court has thus never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity. Leija in his flight did not pass as many cars as the drivers in Scott or Plumhoff; traffic was light on I-27. At the same time, the fleeing fugitives in Scott and Plumhoff had not verbally threatened to kill any officers in their path, nor were they about to come upon such officers. In any event, none of our precedents “squarely governs” the facts here. Given Leija’s conduct, we cannot say that only someone “plainly incompetent” or who “knowingly violate[s] the law” would have perceived a sufficient threat and acted as Mullenix did. (Cites Omitted/Emphasis Added).
The Supreme Court rejected an argument by the only dissenting justice, Sonia Sotomayor, that officers should have waited and tried spike strips. In doing so the Court noted the danger to officers in utilizing spike strips.
In an interesting concurring opinion, Justice Scalia indicated that he would not consider the shooting at a vehicle to disable the vehicle as deadly force even where the shooting results in the death of the driver. Justice Scalia said the question for the Court should have been whether it was reasonable to try to disable the vehicle by shooting at it in light of the conduct of Leija rather than an inquiry as to whether or not deadly force was justified.
This would have likely led to an answering of the Summary Judgment question, as Justice Scalia’s opinion goes to the heart of the matter – is shooting at fleeing vehicles to disable them deadly force, and is it justified.
Trooper Mullenix was granted Qualified Immunity so the Civil Rights violation claim against him was dismissed. Although a victory for the officer, this case went for 5 long years, and reached the Nation’s highest court. For any officer who has had a case go through the Federal Courts, it is an emotional roller coaster.
The Supreme Court did not decide if the shooting was legal under the Constitution, only that the law was not clear so the officer could not be held liable for a violation. As such, the BlueSheepDog Crew must encourage great pause before considering this type of force in stopping a fleeing suspect in a vehicle.
There is a strong inference that can be taken from this U.S. Supreme Court decision. Eight of the nine justices were in agreement for Qualified Immunity. That is a very strong decision for American law enforcement. In addition, the Court itself rejected the one dissenter’s opinion that the officers should have waited to see how the first spike strips worked. In doing so, the Court firmly acknowledged the dangers that high-speed chases involved, and at least leaned towards the consideration for forcible techniques to end them quicker rather than later.