Worries from the Mullenix Case

The United States Supreme Court decided not to review a lawsuit against a Texas state trooper who shot and killed a fleeing suspect in Mullenix v. Luna.

In the case, Beatrice Luna had sued Texas State Trooper Mullenix because he shot and killed Israel Leija, Jr., in 2010 during a high-speed auto chase. Two lower courts had sided with Luna, who was acting partially as a representative of the estate of Israel Leija, Jr.

According to the case documents, Leija fled when Sergeant Randy Baker of the Tulia, Texas Police Department approached Leija’s car at a drive-in restaurant on the night of March 23, 2010, to tell him he was wanted on a previously issued warrant. Then, the record indicates:

Leija sped off, headed for Interstate 27. Baker gave chase and was quickly joined by Trooper Gabriel Rodriguez of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Leija entered the interstate and led the officers on an 18-minute chase at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour. Twice during the chase, Leija called the Tulia Police dispatcher, claiming to have a gun and threatening to shoot at police officers if they did not abandon their pursuit. The dispatcher relayed Leija’s threats, together with a report that Leija might be intoxicated, to all concerned officers.

As Baker and Rodriguez maintained their pursuit, other law enforcement officers set up tire spikes at three locations. Officer Troy Ducheneaux of the Canyon Police Department manned the spike strip at the first location Leija was expected to reach, beneath the overpass at Cemetery Road. Ducheneaux and the other officers had received training on the deployment of spike strips, including on how to take a defensive position so as to minimize the risk posed by the passing driver.

DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix also responded. He drove to the Cemetery Road overpass, initially intending to set up a spike strip there. Upon learning of the other spike strip positions, however, Mullenix began to consider another tactic: shooting at Leija’s car in order to disable it. Mullenix had not received training in this tactic and had not attempted it before, but he radioed the idea to Rodriguez. Rodriguez responded “10-4,” gave Mullenix his position, and said that Leija had slowed to 85 miles per hour. Mullenix then asked the DPS dispatcher to inform his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, of his plan and ask if Byrd thought it was “worth doing.”

Before receiving Byrd’s response, Mullenix exited his vehicle and, armed with his service rifle, took a shooting position on the overpass, 20 feet above I–27. Respondents allege that from this position, Mullenix still could hear Byrd’s response to “stand by” and “see if the spikes work first.”

As Mullenix waited for Leija to arrive, he and another officer, Randall County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Shipman, discussed whether Mullenix’s plan would work and how and where to shoot the vehicle to best carry it out. Shipman also informed Mullenix that another officer was located beneath the overpass. Approximately three minutes after Mullenix took up his shooting position, he spotted Leija’s vehicle, with Rodriguez in pursuit. As Leija approached the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots. Leija’s car continued forward beneath the overpass, where it engaged the spike strip, hit the median, and rolled two and a half times. It was later determined that Leija had been killed by Mullenix’s shots, four of which struck his upper body. There was no evidence that any of Mullenix’s shots hit the car’s radiator, hood, or engine block.

Respondents sued Mullenix, alleging that he had violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against Leija. Mullenix moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity, but the District Court denied his motion, finding that “[t]here are genuine issues of fact as to whether Trooper Mullenix acted recklessly, or acted as a reasonable, trained peace officer would have acted in the same or similar circumstances.”

In the only published dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday’s ruling endorses a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing.

The trooper, she said, “fired six rounds in the dark at a car traveling 85 miles per hour. He did so without any training in that tactic, against the wait order of his superior officers, and less than a second before the car hit spike strips deployed to stop it.”

A majority of the Justices said “Mullenix confronted a reportedly intoxicated fugitive, set on avoiding capture through high-speed vehicular flight, who twice during his flight had threatened to shoot police officers, and who was moments away from encountering an officer” at the overpass.

What do you think?