In Mullenix v. Luna, the United States Supreme Court reviewed a high-speed chase where a trooper, from the Texas Department of Public Safety shot into the fleeing vehicle from an overpass in an attempt to disable the vehicle. In doing so he shot the driver four times in the upper body killing him.
Held: The law is not clearly established as to whether Trooper Mullenix’s shooting at a fleeing vehicle, where the driver had threatened to shoot police officers; was possibly intoxicated; and led law enforcement on a one hundred mile an hour chase, was unconstitutional.
The Court outlined the facts as follows:
On the night of March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Tulia, Texas Police Department followed Israel Leija, Jr., to a drive-in restaurant, with a warrant for his arrest.). When Baker approached Leija’s car and informed him that he was under arrest, Leija sped off, headed for Interstate 27. Baker gave chase and was quickly joined by Trooper Gabriel Rodriguez of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Leija entered the interstate and led the officers on an 18-minute chase at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour. Twice during the chase, Leija called the Tulia Police dispatcher, claiming to have a gun and threatening to shoot at police officers if they did not abandon their pursuit. The dispatcher relayed Leija’s threats, together with a report that Leija might be intoxicated, to all concerned officers.
As Baker and Rodriguez maintained their pursuit, other law enforcement officers set up tire spikes at three locations. Officer Troy Ducheneaux of the Canyon Police Department manned the spike strip at the first location Leija was expected to reach, beneath the overpass at Cemetery Road. Ducheneaux and the other officers had received training on the deployment of spike strips, including on how to take a defensive position so as to minimize the risk posed by the passing driver. DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix also responded. He drove to the Cemetery Road overpass, initially intending to set up a spike strip there. Upon learning of the other spike strip positions, however, Mullenix began to consider another tactic: shooting at Leija’s car in order to disable it. Mullenix had not received training in this tactic and had not attempted it before, but he radioed the idea to Rodriguez. Rodriguez responded “10– 4,” gave Mullenix his position, and said that Leija had slowed to 85 miles per hour. Mullenix then asked the DPS dispatcher to inform his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, of his plan and ask if Byrd thought it was “worth doing.” Before receiving Byrd’s response, Mullenix exited his vehicle and, armed with his service rifle, took a shooting position on the overpass, 20 feet above I– 27. Respondents allege that from this position, Mullenix still could hear Byrd’s response to “stand by” and “see if the spikes work first.” As Mullenix waited for Leija to arrive, he and another officer, Randall County Sheriff ’s Deputy Tom Shipman, discussed whether Mullenix’s plan would work and how and where to shoot the vehicle to best carry it out. Shipman also informed Mullenix that another officer was located beneath the overpass. Approximately three minutes after Mullenix took up his shooting position, he spotted Leija’s vehicle, with Rodriguez in pursuit. As Leija approached the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots. Leija’s car continued forward beneath the overpass, where it engaged the spike strip, hit the median, and rolled two and a half times. It was later determined that Leija had been killed by Mullenix’s shots, four of which struck his upper body. There was no evidence that any of Mullenix’s shots hit the car’s radiator, hood, or engine block.
Respondents sued Mullenix under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that he had violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against Leija. Mullenix moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity, but the District Court denied his motion, finding that “[t]here are genuine issues of fact as to whether Trooper Mullenix acted recklessly, or acted as ]a reasonable, trained peace officer would have acted in the same or similar circumstances.”
Mullenix appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court agreed with the District Court that the “immediacy of the risk posed by Leija is a disputed fact that a reasonable jury could find either in the plaintiffs’ favor or in the officer’s favor, precluding us from concluding that Mullenix acted objectively reasonably as a matter of law.” (Cites Omitted)
NOTE: An Explanation of Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity
Whenever there is a lawsuit based upon an allegation that an officer has committed a Constitutional Violation such as excessive force as an unreasonable seizure of the person under the 4th Amendment, two legal strategies are used to defend the officer and have the case thrown out before it ever gets to trial.
The first strategy is Summary Judgment. In a summary judgment motion, the attorney for the officer asserts that even if the court takes the story of the person suing the officer as true, [though the officer may not agree with that story], the officer did not do anything unconstitutional and the officer is entitled to summary judgment. I sometimes refer to summary judgment as a green light as it is the court’s agreement that the officer’s actions were constitutional.
In some cases a court will disagree and say that the officer’s actions under plaintiff’s story would be unconstitutional. The officer’s lawyer then proceeds to the second strategy, Qualified Immunity. Essentially, qualified immunity means that even if the officer’s actions are unconstitutional no court that has jurisdiction over the officer has considered a similar case and therefore the law was not clearly established, thus an officer would not know that he or she was acting unconstitutionally. In cases where the law is not clearly established, the officer gets Qualified Immunity and the case against the officer is dismissed.
In some cases, the courts skip the first question (Summary Judgment) and do not decide whether the officer’s actions were constitutional or not. The court simply proceeds to the second question and determines that the law is not clearly established and dismisses the constitutional claim brought against the officer.
Back to the Case
The United States Supreme Court decided not to answer the Summary Judgment question in this case. Thus, it was not decided whether it was constitutional to shoot from an overpass at a fleeing vehicle under the circumstances faced by Trooper Mullenix.
The Court did decide that the law was not clearly established and therefore Trooper Mullenix was granted qualified immunity and the Fourth Amendment claim against him was dismissed.
In finding that the law was not clearly established the Court noted:
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 general principle that deadly force requires a sufficient threat hardly settles this matter. See Pasco v. Knoblauch, 566 F. 3d 572, 580 (CA5 2009) (“[I]t would be unreasonable to expect a police officer to make the numerous legal conclusions necessary to apply Garner to a highspeed car chase . . .”). Far from clarifying the issue, excessive force cases involving car chases reveal the hazy legal backdrop against which Mullenix acted. In Brosseau itself, the Court held that an officer did not violate clearly established law when she shot a fleeing suspect out of fear that he endangered “other officers on foot who [she] believed were in the immediate area,” “the occupied vehicles in [his] path,” and “any other citizens who might be in the area.” The threat Leija posed was at least as immediate as that presented by a suspect who had just begun to drive off and was headed only in the general direction of officers and bystanders. By the time Mullenix fired, Leija had led police on a 25-mile chase at extremely high speeds, was reportedly intoxicated, had twice threatened to shoot officers, and was racing towards an officer’s location.
This Court has considered excessive force claims in connection with high-speed chases on only two occasions since Brosseau. In Scott v. arris, 550 U. S. 372, the Court held that an officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment by ramming the car of a fugitive whose reckless driving “posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase.” Id., at 384. And in Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U. S. ___ (2014), the Court reaffirmed Scott by holding that an officer acted reasonably when he fatally shot a fugitive who was “intent on resuming” a chase that “pose[d] a deadly threat for others on the road.” 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 10). The Court has thus 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. Leija in his flight did not pass as many cars as the drivers in Scott or Plumhoff; traffic was light on I–27. At the same time, the fleeing fugitives in Scott and Plumhoff had not verbally threatened to kill any officers in their path, nor were they about to come upon such officers. In any event, none of our precedents “squarely governs” the facts here. 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. (Cites Omitted/Emphasis Added).
The Court rejected an argument forwarded by the dissent that officers should have waited and tried spike strips. In doing so the Court noted the danger to officers in utilizing spike strips.
In an interesting concurring opinion, Justice Scalia indicated that he would not consider the shooting at a vehicle to disable the vehicle as deadly force even where the shooting results in the death of the driver. Justice Scalia said the question for the Court should have been whether it was reasonable to try and disable the vehicle by shooting at it in light of the conduct of Leija rather than an inquiry as to whether or not deadly force was justified.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.