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Sotomayor Says Supreme Court Has 'Shoot First, Think Later' Approach To Cop Violence

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Cristian Farias

The Supreme Court for a number of years has sided with cops in police brutality cases.

The justices did it again Monday, issuing an unsigned summary decision granting immunity to a Texas officer who shot and killed a motorist fleeing police, even though the officer lacked training or even specific orders to open fire.

In so many words, the court ruled the shooting death was legally justified.

The case arose from a civil rights lawsuit against Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Chadrin Mullenix, who wasn't involved in the chase but had responded to a checkpoint along its route to help intercept a vehicle driven by Israel Leija. Leija was wanted on an arrest warrant, and had fled when police officers tried to serve the warrant at a Sonic restaurant.

When Mullenix observed that other officers had already set up tire spikes beneath an overpass to disable Leija's car, he considered his own solo strategy: He grabbed his service rifle, hopped atop the overpass and got into "shooting position."

Mullenix had asked a superior for permission to proceed, but by the time he was in position, he claimed, he was to hear the order to stand by to "see if the spikes work first." Once Leija was within his range of vision, Mullenix shot six rounds. Moments later, Leija's car hit the median and flipped over two and a half times.

What killed Leija, it was later determined, wasn't the crash but the shots from Mullenix's rifle, four of which hit him in the upper torso.

In the Supreme Court's view, Mullenix's use of deadly force was reasonable.

Because the case involved "a fugitive fleeing arrest, at speeds over 100 miles per hour, who was armed and possibly intoxicated" and "who had threatened to kill any officer he saw if the police did not abandon their pursuit," the court declined to find Mullenix "plainly incompetent" and concluded he did not violate any "clearly established" precedent under the Constitution.

The court also admonished that it has "never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, said there was no doubt what this case was about.

"Mullenix’s rogue conduct killed the driver, Israel Leija, Jr.," she wrote flatly, before combing through the factual record to assail how the court "recharacterized" the facts to favor the officer, including his superior's order to not proceed.

"Indeed, reading the majority opinion," Sotomayor wrote, "one would scarcely believe that Mullenix arrived at the overpass several minutes before he took his shot, or that the rural road where the car chase occurred had few cars and no bystanders or businesses."

Then Sotomayor offered a crucial fact that the court seemed to have purposely ignored.

"When Mullenix confronted his superior officer after the shooting, his first words were, 'How’s that for proactive?'" she wrote. 

"The glib comment does not impact our legal analysis," she wrote as she explained the legal standard governing use of force. "But the comment seems to me revealing of the culture this Court’s decision supports when it calls it reasonable — or even reasonably reasonable — to use deadly force for no discernible gain and over a supervisor’s express order to 'stand by.'"

Then came this bit of legal realism about police violence -- perhaps the greatest indictment of police brutality written in a Supreme Court opinion since events in Ferguson drew the national conversation to that subject last summer.

"By sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing," Sotomayor wrote, "the court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow."

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