New SCOTUS case on Qualified Immunity. Summary: Not good.

November 10th, 2015
Elizabeth Franklin-Best

This case belongs in the Tough Cases Make Bad Law pile.  The decedent was passing through a fast food restaurant when a member of the Trulia Police Department (yes, that Trulia, TX Police Department) approached him and told him he was under arrest on an outstanding warrant.  Not inclined to allow himself to be placed under arrest, he sped off and engaged in a high rate speed chase.  A number of other officers got involved, mostly putting down spike strips to stop the decedent’s car.  One enthusiastic officer however—Mullenix—decided he would try something else.  He decided he would shoot the car and disable it!  He had no training in this tactic, and had never attempted it before.  Nevertheless, he called another officer and told him what he was planning to do.  Then Mullenix called the dispatcher and asked him to inform his supervisor what he was planning to do.  Before he received his supervisor’s response, he left his car and took a position on the overpass armed with his service rifle.  As the decedent approached, Mullenix fired 6 rounds.  The car crashed, but forensics showed that he was killed by gunfire.

Decedent’s family brought a civil rights action under 1983 and alleged excessive force.   The District Court denied his claim of qualified immunity.  Astoundingly, the Fifth Circuit agreed that he was not entitled to QI.   The majority found that Mullenix’s actions were objectively unreasonable because several factors that had justified deadly force in previous cases were not present here—no innocent bystanders, the decedent’s driving was relatively under control, police officer had not given road spikes a chance to work, and officer’s decision was not “split-second judgment.”  The court concluded that Mullinex was not entitled to QI because “the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer would have known that the use of deadly force, absent a sufficiently substantial and immediate threat, violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Supreme Court essentially reversed the Fifth Circuit on the issue of the degree of specificity of the “clearly established rule” that Mullinex supposedly violated.  Relying on two other high-speed-car-chases-when-cops-shoot-drivers cases, Plumhoff v. Richard, 572 U.S. __(2014), and Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), the Court ominously notes that “[t]he 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.” In short, since there are no other cases that “squarely address” the factual circumstances present here, the cop gets a pass on civil liability.

Justice Sotomayor was the sole dissenter.

The problem with cases like this is that it emboldens officers in situations like this:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/dashcam-video-shows-police-officer-shooting-dead-unarmed-19-year-old-zachary-hammond-a6711876.html

Instead of using such an aggravated case to make bad law, it would be helpful if SCOTUS could provide meaningful guidance in the closer cases.  As some other astute observers have remarked on, it’s now more likely that a trigger happy police officer will be held criminally liable, than civilly liable.

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