WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court issued a summary reversal Monday in favor of a New Mexico police officer who gave no warning before he shot and killed a gun-wielding man.
Samuel Pauly was killed at his home outside Santa Fe one night in October 2011 a couple of hours after his brother Daniel Pauly was involved in a road-rage incident.
Officers responding to a 911 call about the incident did not have probable cause but sought to question the driver anyway, and headed out to the address registered with his plate.
Initially Officer Ray White stayed behind at the highway where the road rage report had been called in. He joined at the Pauly residence at about 11 p.m. when fellow officers observed Daniel’s pickup truck parked beside one of two houses on the lot.
While the first house was dark, the lights were on at the rear house where Daniel’s pickup was parked.
Monday’s unsigned ruling from the Supreme Court notes that it is relaying what happened next in the light most favorable to the Paulys.
It says the Paulys became aware of the officers’ presence outside the house before White arrived.
“‘Hey, (expletive), we got you surrounded,” the other officers had apparently said. “Come out or we’re coming in.’”
The brothers purportedly never heard the officers identify themselves as state police, however, and armed themselves inside the house.
Just as Officer White half-jogged up to the rear house, hearing shouting, he heard one of say, “We have guns.”
Daniel stepped out of the house a few seconds later and fired two shotgun blasts while screaming wildly. After another few seconds, Samuel pointed his handgun toward White.
The ruling says one of the other officers fired at Samuel immediately but missed.
White shot and killed Samuel four to five seconds later.
Faced with a federal complaint by Samuel’s estate, the officers all moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
After the District Court sided with the estate, a divided three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit affirmed last year.
The officers petitioned for certiorari, and the Supreme Court took up their case this morning.
Opting to vacate the underlying opinion without a hearing, the court said White did not violate clearly established law in using deadly force without warning Samuel to drop his weapon.
“Of note, the majority did not conclude that White’s conduct — such as his failure to shout a warning — constituted a run-of-the-mill Fourth Amendment violation,” the unsigned opinion states. “Indeed, it recognized that ‘this case presents a unique set of facts and circumstances’ in light of White’s late arrival on the scene. This alone should have been an important indication to the majority that White’s conduct did not violate a ‘clearly established’ right. Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here.”
As to whether White’s fellow officers failed to make themselves known as police, the 8-page opinion notes that the record is silent on whether the “jury could infer that White witnessed the other officers’ deficient performance and should have realized that corrective action was necessary before using deadly force.”
Whether White’s fellow officers, Kevin Truesdale and Michael Mariscal, are entitled to immunity remains unclear.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a concurring opinion that both of these issues could be at play on remand.
A few months after the 10th Circuit ruled against the officers, a federal judge sided with police in yet another suit by the Pauly family.
This case takes aim at a police officer who apparently texted photos of the shooting’s aftermath. A grand jury ruled in October 2012 that the shooting of Samuel Pauly was justified.