SCOTUS To Cop: Shoot First, Think Later. We Got You.
Nov. 10, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — It had been thought by more scholarly types that the Supreme Court tried to tell cops not to kill people who just happened to be fleeing for no particular reason at all. Apparently, that was wrong. In a per curiam decision, the Court straightened the mess out: No, no. Shoot at will. Kill ’em. It’s all cool. Except for Israel Leija Jr.
Leija had not completed all of his hours of community service in a timely manner. So there was a warrant for his arrest, and when officers tried to serve it on him, he fled. Now, officers knew exactly who he was. They knew exactly where he lived. They now had reason to seek an additional warrant for his arrest. But instead, they chose to engage in a high speed chase.
If the National Sheriff’s Association is to be believed, “[high speed] chases are extraordinarily dangerous to the public. Indeed, state-court decisions in which high-speed chases killed innocent bystanders or police officers are sadly too numerous to fully catalog here.” Despite the serious dangers posed to the public, however, the police decided to do what we’ve empowered them to do, weigh our lives against their convenience.
According to Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, it was an unusually safe high-speed chase, at least:
Leija remained on the paved portion of the road with his headlights on, did not run any vehicles off the road, did not collide with any vehicles, and did not cause any collisions; there were no pedestrians or stopped vehicles along the road; and all of the pursuit occurred in rural areas, without businesses or residences near the interstate, which was divided by a wide center median.
Leija seemed to be pretty afraid of what would happen when the pursuing officers caught him. Twice, he called 911, threatening to shoot the police after him unless they called off the chase, though he had no gun.
Three quarters of a second before Leija would have hit one of three sets of road strips waiting for him, Officer Chandrin Mullenix fired six shots at his car, hitting him in the neck and killing him instantly. Mullenix claimed that he was trying to hit the engine block, though none of his shots landed there, he had no training in that tactic, and he had never seen it done before. After shooting and killing Leija, Mullenix gloated, asking his supervising officer, “How’s that for proactive?”
The Office of the Inspector General issued a report, saying that Mullenix had acted recklessly and without justification.
When Leija’s family sued, claiming that Mullenix had used deadly force without justification, the Fifth Circuit agreed that Mullenix had acted in an objectively unreasonable way.
A large part of that decision came from the fact that Mullenix was not making a split-second decision. He had already decided that he was going to kill Leija, and had three minutes to wait for his approach. When he asked his supervisor if it would be alright to shoot at the man, the supervisor told him to wait and see if the road strips worked first.
Despite the difficult facts, the government appealed. And it prevailed mightily. The Court noted that a police officer can’t be liable for killing a person unless the unconstitutionality of his actions were unconstitutional “beyond debate.”
But there were no identical cases the Supreme Court could find that said specifically that you can’t disobey orders and shoot a man who is about to hit a tire strip. And against the “hazy legal backdrop” of high-speed chase law, the Supreme Court felt it could not fault Officer Mullenix.
As if to add insult to injury, the Supreme Court refused to clarify whether such actions would be illegal in the future, though it suggested that Mullenix’s actions weren’t unreasonable.
Justice Sotomayor dissented, pointing out that even if the officer was competent, and managed to shoot the engine block of the car (assuming he didn’t mean to just shoot the victim), there is no evidence that it would have in any way lessened the danger to officers manning the strips. In fact, there’s a pretty decent argument that shooting someone in the neck might make them less good at driving.
See, after Mullenix shot Leija in the neck, he still hit the road strip, because inertia is a thing. Except now he was dead or dying, and he ended up rolling his car two or three times before coming to a halt. Physics, sadly, often takes action even in the absence of clear precedent.
Because there wasn’t any reason why Mullenix’s actions could be safer than just letting Leija hit the strip, Sotomayor said that he acted unreasonably even in the absence of an identical case frowning on such shootings.
The Supreme Court seems intent on offering maximum protection to the discretion of police officers. In what it describes as a “balancing test,” between the public’s interest in not being hurt or killed by police officer’s and the officer’s interest in not having to show up for court, there seems to be a bundle of lead ingots on the officer’s side of the scale.
As a result, we have created a system marked most by its consistency. An officer who hurts or kills someone is unlikely to face negative consequences.
The badge that officers wear is shaped like a shield. It is supposed to be a symbol for the way that police shield the citizens of this country from fear, from loss, and from harm. Yet in an age where virtually every shoot is justified, it has become instead an aegis against personal responsibility, transparency, and change. Officers may bear the shield, but it is the public that carries its weight.