U.S. Supreme Court holds officer entitled to qualified immunity after shooting fleeing suspect in high-speed chase

Mullenix v. Luna 14-1143, 2015 WL 6829329 (U.S. Nov. 9, 2015)

The U.S. Supreme Court issued this qualified immunity case in a police chase/§1983 lawsuit granting the officer involved immunity for shooting a fleeing suspect.

When officers in Tulia Texas attempted to arrest Leija under a warrant, Leija drove off leading police on an 18-minute high-speed chase. Leija phoned into dispatch while eluding police and threated to shoot officers who did not break off their pursuit. While some officers set up highways spikes, DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix positioned himself over the bridge where the spikes were located. He did not believe the spikes would work and as Leija approached, he fired several shots into the car killing Leija. Respondent sued the Mullenix alleging excessive force. The district court denied Mullenix’ qualified immunity motion. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Mullenix appealed.

The issued addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the law was clearly established such that Mullenix would have known his actions would violate Leija’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The Court started out holding “[w]e have repeatedly told courts . . . not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.” The dispositive question is whether the violating nature of the  particular conduct is clearly established. This inquiry “must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” The correct inquiry was whether it was clearly established that the Fourth Amendment prohibited the officer’s conduct in the situation confronted (i.e.  whether to shoot an intoxicated felon, set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight.)  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 Court analyzed and concluded excessive force cases involving car chases reveal a hazy legal backdrop. The Court held none if its prior precedents “squarely governs” the facts here. Given Leija’s conduct, it could not say that only someone “plainly incompetent” or who “knowingly violate[s] the law” would have perceived a sufficient threat and acted as Mullenix did.

Justice Scalia concurred in the judgment, but analyzed the situation as one where the intent was not to kill or wound the individual, but to incapacitate the car. “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.”

The dissent focused on the fact Mullenix should have waited to see if the road spikes worked first. She held Mullenix fired without any training in that tactic, against the wait order of his superior officer, and less than a second before the car hit spike strips deployed to stop it. As a result, she felt the actions were objectively unreasonable and the law was clearly established enough on the subject.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Per Curiam opinion. Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion