WASHINGTON (CN) - A Texas state trooper who ended a high-speed chase by firing at the fleeing car from a bridge, killing the driver, deserves immunity, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Israel Leija Jr. had fled on March 23, 2010, after officers spotted him on arrest warrants stemming from a misdemeanor probation violation. The 18-minute pursuit stretched through rural areas of Interstate-27 at speeds between 80 and 100 mph.
Trooper Chadrin Lee Mullenix fired six shots, with the purported intent of disabling the car. Four of those bullets struck the driver, however, and none hit the car.
After firing the rounds, and watching the car hit a median and flip over, the trooper quipped to his supervisor, "How's that for proactive?"
Leija was unarmed but officers knew that he had called the Tulia Police Dispatch twice from his cellphone during the chase, claiming that he had a gun, and that he would shoot at police officers if they did not cease the pursuit.
An investigation by Texas Rangers and a review board with the Texas Department of Public Safety concluded no wrongdoing on Mullenix's part. A grand jury declined to indict the officer in connection with the shooting.
Leija's family filed suit, however, and a federal judge left only an excessive-force claim against Mullenix intact, refusing to award the officer qualified immunity.
"There is no evidence - one way or another - that any attempt to shoot out an engine block moving at 80 mph could possibly have been successful," that judge had said.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed last year, noting that any training Mullenix received on shooting upwards at clay pigeons did not train him "on how to shoot at a moving vehicle to disable it."
Spike strips, which were already set up in three locations ahead of the pursuit, and other nonlethal methods could have ended the pursuit, the court found.
With the federal appeals court declining to rehear the case en banc, Mullenix petitioned the justices in Washington for a writ of certiorari.
The court summarily reversed, 8-1, for the officer this morning.
"The fact is that when Mullenix fired, he reasonably understood Leija to be a fugitive fleeing arrest, at speeds over 100 miles per hour, who was armed and possibly intoxicated, who had threatened to kill any officer he saw if the police did not abandon their pursuit, and who was racing" toward another officer," the unsigned ruling states.
"Even accepting that these circumstances fall somewhere between the two sets of cases respondents discuss, qualified immunity protects actions in the '"hazy border between excessive and acceptable force,"'" the majority added.
The reversal hinges on whether there is "a clearly established rule that a police officer may not '"use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of harm to the officer or others."'"
This court has previously considered - and rejected - almost that exact formulation of the qualified immunity question in the Fourth Amendment context," the justices said.
The majority noted that Mullenix was confronting "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 ruling continues.
Though dashcam video supports a claim by Leija's family that highway traffic was light, and that the chase did not cause any collisions or endanger any pedestrians, the justices found this evidence insufficient.
While Leija did not pass as many cars as the drivers in precedential car-chase cases, none of those other fleeing fugitives had "verbally threatened to kill any officers in their path, nor were they about to come upon such officers," the opinion states.
"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," the justices added.
There is no Supreme Court precedent finding "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," according to the ruling.
Leija's car continued north after Mullenix fired. After it hit the spike strip and then the median, it rolled two and a half times. Leija was pronounced dead soon after, with a single shot to the neck and three other bullets to his upper body.
Mullenix remarked to his supervisor, Sgt. Robert Byrd, "How's that for proactive?" The comment referred to a counseling session Mullenix had faced earlier that day, during which Byrd urged Mullenix to be more proactive as a trooper.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited this "glib" comment in her dissent.
"The comment seems to me revealing of the culture this court's decision supports when it calls it reasonable - or even reasonably reasonable - to use deadly force for no discernible gain and over a supervisor's express order to 'stand by,'" the dissent states. "By sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow."
In saying she would have affirmed denying the officer immunity, Sotomayor found it "clearly established under the Fourth Amendment that an officer in Mullenix's position should not have fired the shots."
Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in the judgment, taking issue with the description of Leija's death as "the application of deadly force in effecting an arrest."
"Though it was force sufficient to kill, it was not applied with the object of harming the body of the felon," Scalia wrote.
The Mullenix ruling is one of two summary reversals the high court handed down today. Indeed, the justices vacated the underlying 10th Circuit opinion in the other case, Pickens v. Aldaba, in light of Mullenix.
Though apparently unrelated, the decedent in Pickens shared the same last name as the suspect in Mullenix. On March 24, 2011, Johnny Leija died after an altercation with Officer Brandon Pickens and Deputies James Atnip and Steve Beebe in an Oklahoma hospital where Leija was being treated for pneumonia.
The court did not otherwise issue any grants Monday.