Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
America’s high court granted immunity to a Texas policeman who shot and killed a fleeing suspect over his sergeant’s orders.
The U.S. Supreme Court started off the week by granting legal immunity to Texas police officer Chadrin Lee Mullenix, who shot and killed 24-year-old Israel Leija Jr. during a car chase.
Leija was first approached by a Tulia, Texas, police officer on March 23, 2010, looking to serve a misdemeanor probation arrest warrant. When Leija sped off, he was pursued by police onto a highway, accelerating to triple-digit miles per hour, during which he called the dispatcher and threatened to shoot any cop he encountered. State troopers threw spikes on the road to stop Leija’s car, but Mullenix decided to stop him with his rifle. Mullenix claimed he was aiming for Leija’s car engine, but at least four of his rifle shots ended up in Leija’s body and were determined to be the cause of his death.
The sergeant on the scene had first instructed Mullenix to stand down to let the road spikes work on Leija, but Mullenix fired anyway. When Leija’s body was recovered, there was no gun found in the car. Leija’s family sued, claiming that Mullenix acted recklessly. A federal district court agreed, rejecting Mullenix’s “qualified immunity” plea (which most every cop claims when sued for killing someone, and which is usually granted), as did an appeals court.
But the U.S. Supreme Court re-gifted Mullenix with immunity in an 8-1 vote Monday. As Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog:
The Court granted Mullenix what is called “qualified immunity” from the lawsuit, concluding that no binding court ruling had declared unconstitutional the specific situation that unfolded in this incident in March 2010. While the decision repeated the common rule that each use of police force should be judged on its specific facts, the Court said specifically that it had “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.”
It was at least the third time since 2012 that SCOTUS granted these protections to police involved in killing suspects. The SCOTUS majority in yesterday’s unsigned opinion wrote: “Put simply, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ “
National Review managing editor Jason Lee Steorts wrote for The Atlantic in August that courts need to reconsider when and how police can use deadly force to diffuse these types of situations, particularly when it comes to car chases. Wrote Steorts:
As a matter of principle, a reasonable standard of proportionality should match intent with intent: Officers should not try to kill people unless they are trying, or at least have tried, to kill or injure others. Dangerous though he be, a reckless driver presents a categorically less severe kind of threat than someone who has shown that he aims to inflict harm. And as a practical matter, if a driver is disabled, “the vehicle will most likely continue under its own power or momentum for some distance[,] thus creating another hazard,” as the International Association of Chiefs of Police has noted.
Some might argue that Leija shouldn’t have tried to escape the police. But there’s context for why a person of color might distrust the motives of a cop in Tulia, Texas. Tulia is the small town where one of the largest and most controversial drug stings in the state’s history took place on July 23, 1999. Thomas Coleman, a narcotics task force agent, rounded up and arrested 46 people on drug charges that day, 39 of them African-American. The judge on the cases handed out sentences that were 20 to 30 years long, with a few people given life in prison.
These sentences were thrown out, though, when it was found that Coleman doctored his police reports and made false claims in his investigation, and also when it was revealed that Coleman was himself engaged in criminal activity. Coleman’s victims were awarded $6 million in a civil settlement. The case was one of the early turning points in the war on drugs, when government and law enforcement officials realized that policies for handing out stiff sentences for drug crimes were spiraling out of control.
With that history in mind, it’s a surprise that people fleeing cops in Tulia isn’t a regular occurrence. With SCOTUS granting immunity to the officer Mullenix, Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, said the court is “sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing.”