Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Supreme Court says officer not liable in wrongful death case

The Supreme Court has quietly held that a police officer who shot at a fleeing motorist during a high-speed chase is immune from suit because the state of the law at the time of the shooting did not make it clear that he violated the Fourth Amendment in firing the shots.

The case is Mullenix v. Luna, decided on November 9 in the form of a per curiam opinion without oral argument. In other words, the Court thinks this was an easy case. Only Justice Sotomayor dissents. It all started when some lunatic led the police on an 18-minute chase at speeds between 85 and 100 miles per hour. The motorist claimed to  have a gun and said he would shoot the officers if they did not leave him alone. The police laid down spike strips to disable the vehicle, but one officer, Mullenix, decided to shoot at the car from an overpass. Mullenix had no training for this maneuver. Before waiting for his superior officer to sign off on this approach, and before waiting to see if the strip spikes would work, Mullenix aimed his gun at the car and fired, killing the driver. After the driver was hit, the car engaged the spike strip, causing the car to roll over.

I used to guest teach a class at a local college where I would give the students a fact pattern and ask them to predict how the Supreme Court would decide the case. I would then explain the Court's reasoning. My guess is the students in this case would say the officer was liable for the driver's unlawful death. That's because students are unaware of qualified immunity, which says the police are immune from suit if they did not violate clearly-established law at the time of the incident. Clearly-established law means the case law was specific enough that any public official was on notice that he was violating the Constitution. Although thousands of court rulings have come down over the years on police conduct, judges still have not contemplated every factual scenario. Like this one. Here is how the Court frames the issue:

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.

The Court says the legal backdrop for these cases has always been hazy. "The Court has ... 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." Since there is no case quite like this one, the officer is given the benefit of the doubt and the plaintiff loses.

Justice Scalia concurs, stating that "It does not assist analysis to refer to all use of force that happens to kill the arrestee as the application of deadly force. The police might, for example, attempt to stop a fleeing felon’s car by felling a large tree across the road; if they drop the tree too late, so that it crushes the car and its occupant, I would not call that the application of deadly force. Though it was force sufficient to kill, it was not applied with the object of harming the body of the felon."

Justice Sotomayor sees things differently, but no one else on the Court signs onto her dissent. She writes:

Balancing a particular governmental interest in the use of deadly force against the intrusion occasioned by the use of that force is inherently a fact-specific inquiry, not susceptible to bright lines. But it is clearly established that the government must have some interest in using deadly force over other kinds of force.

Here, then, the clearly established legal question—the question a reasonable officer would have asked—is whether,under all the circumstances as known to Mullenix, there was a governmental interest in shooting at the car rather than waiting for it to run over spike strips.

The majority does not point to any such interest here. It claims that Mullenix’s goal was not merely to stop the car,but to stop the car “in a manner that avoided the risks” of relying on spike strips.

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