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U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Fifth Circuit on Whether Officer is Entitled to Qualified Immunity

Posted on: November 16th, 2015

By: Coleen Hosack

         On November 9, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision to uphold a district court ruling denying summary judgment to Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Chadrin Mullenix, the sole issue being whether Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity under circumstances where he used his rifle to disable a vehicle driven by a fleeing felon. Mullinex v. Luna, 577 U.S. (2015). The Court held that central to the qualified immunity analysis is how the court frames the “clearly established rule.”  The relevant inquiry “is whether existing precedent placed the conclusion that Mullenix acted unreasonably in these circumstances ‘beyond debate.’”  Mullinex, p. 7 slip opinion.  Framing the rule too generally like the Fifth Circuit did (i.e. that deadly force requires a sufficient threat) is inadequate because answering the general question fails to settle the matter of immunity, particularly in light of Brosseau v. Haugen, 125 S. Ct. 596, 599 (2004), a case also involving the shooting of a suspect fleeing in a car.  In Brosseau, the Court rejected the general test and explained that the correct inquiry was whether it was clearly established that the Fourth Amendment prohibited the officer’s conduct in the situation that the Brosseau officer confronted, which was whether to shoot a disturbed felon, set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight.

         As for Mullinex, the context in which the “clearly established rule” should have been analyzed was within the framework that he confronted a reported 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 Cemetery Road. Mullinex, p. 7 slip opinion. The circumstances that Mullinex faced were more unpredictable and more dangerous than those circumstances faced by the Brosseau officer, who was entitled to qualified immunity.  Unlike Mullinex, who knew officers were on foot in the immediate area, the Brosseau officer only believed officers on foot were in the immediate area and that others persons might be in the area.  Mullinex’s actual knowledge of officers on the ground coupled with the actual threats Leija made and the possibility that Leija was intoxicated made the case for qualified immunity even stronger for Mullinex as compared to the Brosseau officer.

         The Court argued that if the use of deadly force in connection with dangerous car chases like those circumstances found in Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769 (2007) and Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012 (2014) does not violate the Fourth Amendment; then it surely cannot be the basis for denying qualified immunity. The Court rejected the dissent’s criticism of Mullinex’ not waiting to see if the spike strips worked first before attempting to disable the vehicle by other means. There is no clearly established law that says an officer must select one dangerous alternative over another in high speed chases. Further, relying on an Amici Curiae brief written by the National Association of Police Organizations, spike strips suffer from their own set of problems, including that they are not always reliable and they too are inherently dangerous to use. Finally, the Court was satisfied with the governmental interest that justified the shooting because of Mullinex’s testimony that he feared Leija may run over the officers manning the spike strips.  Aside from Mullinex being immune from suit, the take away from this case against the back-drop of Brosseau, Scott, and Plumhoff, is that the Supreme Court has sent another strong message that the use of deadly force to end a dangerous high speed pursuit is permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

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