The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a lawsuit against a Texas police officer that could have broad implications for other lawsuits against law enforcement across the country. The Supreme Court voted 8-1 in favor of the police officer in the case of Mullenix v. Luna, establishing that officers are immune to prosecution for excessive force unless their guilt can be proven “beyond debate.”
The case of Mullenix v. Luna began in a 2010 Tulia, Texas, car chase when Israel Leija Jr. fled from police in his car. Leija was both intoxicated and armed as he sped away from law enforcement on Interstate 27, going as fast a 110 miles per hour, The New York Times reports.
Police laid a spike trap to stop Leija’s vehicle, but one state trooper, Chadrin L. Mullenix, positioned himself with a rifle on the highway overpass.
Ignoring his superior’s command to “stand by,” Mullenix discharged six rounds into Leija’s car as it approached, seconds before it would have hit the spike trap. Leija was struck and killed by the gunfire.
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Leija’s family pursued charges against Mullenix on grounds that he used excessive force, especially after his fellow officers had already laid a trap that could have resulted in him surviving the chase.
The Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 9 that Mullenix was taking action during a tense car chase and that it cannot be proven that he had intended to kill Leija.
“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,” the court justices wrote in a statement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Ultimately, whatever can be said of the wisdom of Mullenix’s choice, this court’s precedents do not place the conclusion that he acted unreasonably in these circumstances beyond debate.”
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The dissenting opinion was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who honed in on the detail that Mullenix had been ridiculed for not being proactive enough by a superior officer that morning, The New York Times reports.
“When Mullenix confronted his superior officer after the shooting, his first words were, ‘How's that for proactive?’” Sotomayor notes in her statement. She argues that the ruling gives a free pass to a police force culture of “‘Shoot first, think later.’”