Supreme Court Decides Mullenix v. Luna
A police officer who shot at a fleeing car in an attempt to disable it, but who killed the driver, was entitled to qualified immunity from suit, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled November 9 in Mullenix v. Luna.
The officer was entitled to qualified immunity, the Court held, because the shooting did not violate clearly established precedent.
The Court held that lower courts cannot define clearly established law “at a high level of generality.”
After being informed by police that he was under arrest, a driver, Israel Leija, sped off in his car.
Police chased him. During the chase, Leija telephoned a police dispatcher, said he had a gun, and threated to shoot at police.
As the chase continued, other officers set up road spikes to try to stop the car.
Meanwhile, Trooper Chadrin Mullenix, who was on an overpass, thought the car could be stopped by shooting at the engine to disable it. Mullinex had not received training in this tactic, and had never tried it before. Without receiving approval from a supervisor, Mullinex apparently tried shooting at the car’s engine. However, the shots hit and killed Leija.
Leija’s estate sued Mullinex, claiming he violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force.
The Fifth Circuit held that Mullinex was not entitled to qualified immunity because the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer would have known that use of deadly force, absent a sufficiently substantial and immediate threat, violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court reversed in a per curiam opinion, without full briefing or argument.
Qualified immunity protects officers from civil liability so long as their conduct does not violate “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. “Put simply,” the Court said, “qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’”
Clearly established law cannot be defined at a “high level of generality,” the Court said.
“The dispositive question is ‘whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established,” the Court held. “The relevant inquiry is whether existing precedent placed the conclusion that Mullenix acted unreasonably in these circumstances ‘beyond debate.’”
The Court reviewed its prior cases on the use of deadly force against a fleeing person accused of a felony, and found that they had “rejected” denial of qualified immunity in similar circumstances.
“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,” the Court said.
“[N]one of our precedents ‘squarely governs’ the facts here.” As a result, the Court held that Mullenix’s conduct was not “plainly incompetent” or such that he “knowingly violate[d] the law.”
Justice Sotomayor was alone in dissenting.
She said the majority incorrectly framed the question as “whether” the car should have been stopped instead of “how” the car should have been.
She noted that Mullenix had a choice between shooting at the car, or allowing the road spikes to stop the car. That is the constitutional question the Court should address, Sotomayor said. The majority’s framing of the question “that the right at stake not be defined at a ‘high level of generality’ … is a red herring.”
Sotomayor chastised the majority for supporting a police “culture” that it is “reasonable – or even reasonably reasonable – to use deadly force for no discernible gain.”
“By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow,” she concluded.