The Sugarland Express

The Justices issued another per curiam opinion early in the term, in November. That case, Mullenix v. Luna, took a look at a Texas police chase that resulted in the shooting death of the perpetrator and whether the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court handed down an 8-1 decision, with an unsigned majority opinion, joined by a concurrent decision by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.

The Story

A little more than six years ago, in March of 2010, the police department of Tulia, TX, a small town south of Amarillo, was engaged in a high-speed car chase. Police officers had followed Israel Leija, Jr. to a restaurant and carried with them an arrest warrant. Since Leija was eating at a drive-in restaurant, which evidently still exist, he was able to speed away quickly. The police officer who came to arrest Leija, Sergeant Randy Baker, was soon joined in the chase many other police officers.

During this chase, which lasted eighteen minutes, Leija sped to 110 mph and called the Trulia police dispatcher, claiming he had a gun and would shoot officers if they continued to driver after him. The dispatcher relayed the message to officers, adding that Leija may have been drunk.

Some police officers began trying different methods to end the chase. Some officers set up tire spikes at a few locations. Chadrin Mullenix, a Texas state trooper, began to consider shooting at Leija’s car. By shooting at the engine, he would be able to disable the car. Mullenix had never been trained to do this, and he had never attempted it before. He radioed the idea to another state trooper, who gave Mullenix more information about what Leija was doing. Mullenix told a supervisor, but before he got confirmation back, he stepped out of the car and assumed position. Only when he was out of the car, and perhaps it was audible but one can never be sure, did his superior respond to stand by and see if the spikes work.

When the car passed, Mullenix shot six bullets. But since the spikes were located there as well, the car rolled around and Mullenix’s bullets hit Leija, which killed him. There is no evidence that Mullenix’s shots hit any of his targets on the car.

The Lower Courts

Under the “Civil action for deprivation of rights” section of U.S. Code, the estate of Leija sued Mullenix for depriving Leija of his Fourth Amendment rights. He had used excessive force, argued the respondents, and had acted recklessly. Mullenix sought to secure himself qualified immunity, which allows a government official who do their job reasonably to avoid a lawsuit for any damage they might inflict in the process. The District Court agreed with Leija’s estate. It’s not clear, they said, that Mullenix acted as a reasonably trained officer.

Mullenix appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which agreed with the District Court. It’s impossible to judge the risk posed by Leija, the court argued, which means it’s equally impossible to determine if Mullenix was acting reasonably or not. In a dissent, one judge argued that Mullenix had made an objectively reasonable decision because he had known that Leija threatened to shoot police officers AND there was another police officer by the road where Mullenix was. She went on to explain that since spike strips are often ineffective, to wait and see if they worked would have been too large a risk.

After a bit of musical decision chairs regarding whether to rehear the case, en banc, two Judges ended up dissenting from the court’s decision to reject Mullenix’s plea to rehear the case. Two judges, the two who created the majority in the three-judge panel that previously heard the case and sided with the District Court, withdraw their opinion and submitted a new one. This second opinion reaffirmed the denial of qualified immunity, but argued that objective unreasonableness of conduct by Mullenix was a decision the could resolve on a summary judgment. That majority decision concluded that Mullenix’s actions had been unreasonable because of the absence of several factors that justify using deadly force. Those factors include the lack of innocent bystanders, Leija’s relatively controlled driving, Mullenix’s refusal to let the spike strips work before shooting, and that Mullenix made a deliberate decision rather than having a split-second judgment. Thus, the court reasoned, Mullenix wouldn’t get qualified immunity because a reasonable officer would have known his actions would violate Leija’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion, unattributed to an author, as is standard, only addresses the question of whether Mullenix is entitled to qualified immunity. The majority opinion disagreed with the lower courts and found for Mullenix on an 8-1 split.

Citing Malley v. Briggs, a 1986 case which clarified the conditions for bing given qualified immunity, the majority argues that the standard for granting qualified immunity is to err on the side of the officer unless that officer is “plainly incompetent” or “knowingly violate[d] the law.” The majority also chastises the lower courts for defining laws broadly, rather than evaluating each specific case individually. This is important for Fourth Amendment cases, the opinion argues, citing 2001’s Saucier v. Katz.

Since, they concluded, Leija was a serious threat, the case was open and shut. Using the above logic, and unable to find any previous cases with the the same situation, the Court ruled in favor of Mullenix, arguing they wouldn’t rule that using deadly force in a dangerous car chase violated Fourth Amendment rights (or violated his access to qualified immunity), thus protecting him from liability for the accident and paying the Leija estate.

Scalia’s Concurrence

Justice Scalia had only a minor gripe with the decision. While he agreed with the outcome, that is, he believed Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity, he disagreed with a specific terminological decision made by the majority. Mullenix’s decision should not be called “deadly force,” which specifically refers to when police officers attempt to harm the target. In this case, while the force the police officer used would (and did) kill Mullenix, the target was the car, not Leija, so this wouldn’t be an instance of  using “deadly force.”

Sotomayor’s Dissent

Justice Sotomayor, in her dissent, expressed her contempt for Mullenix’s decisions. He had received no training with his rifle for the specific situation, he had been told to stand by (albeit when he was outside the car), and he had never received concerns from the officers laying down the spikes that they were in danger. Additionally, Mullenix had commented after the shots, “How’s that for proactive?,” evidently a joking response to a comment by a superior earlier that had criticized him for not acting decisively in prior cases. That glib comment, Sotomayor argued, reflects a broader culture of defaulting to determining objectionable police conduct “reasonable.”

Further, the Court, Sotomayor argued, was adopting a “shoot first, think later” method of policing, which would effectively dismantle the Fourth Amendment. Sotomayor, a committed civil libertarian against police force, issued a similar lone dissent in last year’s Heien v. North Carolina, in which she argued police officers couldn’t use evidence found in a search and seizure based on a mistake of law.

Impact

The case technically narrows the Fourth Amendment but, like a lot of per curiam opinions, the change is slight. In fact, the Court argued in their opinion that these cases must be evaluated on an individual basis, rather than applying one broad law to them all. That being said, in a case where a police officer acted somewhat recklessly (not totally, but not like a saint either), this could only signal the Court’s tolerance for narrowing the Amendment in the future. Of course, this situation did provide a public danger, at least in the police’s eyes (there evidently was no gun in the car, but that was only determined after the fact), so the Fourth Amendment violation, if there even was one, was likely justified.

What to Read

Colin Starger, Associate Professor, University of Baltimore School of Law, argues in casetext that, while Sotomayor may be on the correct moral side of the debate, she doesn’t support her argument with precedent and could have done more in the past.

Note on the Title

The Sugarland Express is a 1974 film directed by Steven Spielberg about a couple being chased by the police in Texas – that seemed appropriate.

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