Shooting at a moving car: 3 key lessons for cops in SCOTUS ruling

The Supreme Court opinion on Mullenix v. Luna focused on one key issue: qualified immunity


By David Demurjian
PoliceOne Contributor

On November 9, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion on Mullenix v. Luna, in which the Court held that an officer who killed a suspect while attempting to shoot at the engine block of the suspect’s speeding car was entitled to qualified immunity because the officer did not violate any clearly established law by his conduct.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit, which had affirmed the District Court’s denial of the officer’s motion for summary judgment and had also found the officer’s actions were objectively unreasonable and that he was not justified in using deadly force.

The Supreme Court categorically disagreed with both the District Court and the Court of Appeals as it pertained to the issue of qualified immunity.

Facts of the Case
On March 23, 2010, Israel Leija, Jr. fled from police after being informed that there was a warrant for his arrest. In his failed attempt to avoid incarceration, the pursuit lasted for about 18 minutes with speeds that ranged from 85 to 110 miles per hour and covered about 25 miles.

Aside from the potentially fatal results of driving this way, Leija continued on with his poor decision-making and phoned the police dispatch twice during the pursuit to inform them that he had a gun and that he was going to shoot the pursing police officers unless they disengaged. Dispatch relayed the information and the possibility that Leija may be drunk to the officers involved. After contemplating Leija’s cautionary words of advice, the officers continued on with the pursuit.

Police planned to utilize three sets of spike strips at three different locations. In one of the locations, Trooper Chadrin Mullenix positioned himself on the high ground on an overpass so he could see Leija approaching. Underneath his position, an officer deployed spike strips and positioned himself in a defensive location in an attempt to minimize any threat from Leija.

As the officers waited for Leija to approach the overpass, Mullenix suggested he could disable Leija’s car by shooting at the engine block with his service rifle. He asked for permission to shoot from his supervisor. The record is unclear if he ever received permission from his sergeant or was advised to wait to see if the spike strips worked. What was very clear from the record was that Mullenix had never received training on the concept of shooting at a car’s engine block in order to stop a car.

Leija continued toward the underpass where the trooper was positioned. As Leija barreled down the highway in the dark, Mullenix fired his rifle six times at the engine block of the car prior to the suspect hitting the spike strips. The car continued speeding by, engaged the spike strips, then hit the median and flipped over several times.

When the dust settled, an investigation determined Mullenix missed the engine block, the radiator and the hood of Leija’s car. However, four of his shots hit Leija’s center body mass and resulted in his death.

Soon thereafter, Mullenix stated to a supervisor, “How’s that for proactive?”

The record does not contain how Mullenix’s supervisor responded to the comment.

The plaintiff — on behalf of the recently departed Leija — filed an action against the trooper and additional parties alleging that the trooper used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and related causes of action.

The trooper moved for summary judgement based on qualified immunity. The District Court denied his motion, holding that the trooper was not entitled to qualified immunity and that his actions were objectively unreasonable for the situation that he encountered. The Fifth Circuit ultimately affirmed the District Court’s decision denying the officer’s motion.

Analysis of the Case
The Supreme Court opinion was laser sharp and focused upon one key issue: qualified immunity — they did not review the issue of whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation. The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right at the time of the challenged conduct. In this case, the Court clarified the analytical framework for decisions regarding qualified immunity for applications of force involving speeding motor vehicles.

This case built upon the Court’s prior decisions regarding qualified immunity as seen in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) and Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009). The opinion reviewed some of the Court’s landmark decisions involving applications of force and motor vehicles: Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004), Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007) and Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. (2014).

When there is a qualified immunity analysis, the Court stressed that whatever statutory or constitutional right may have been violated must be clearly established so that it is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. (2012). Further the Court stated, “[w]e do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011). In this case, the Court opined that the dispositive question was whether the trooper’s volatile nature of his particular conduct was clearly established.

In a detailed review of Brousseu v. Haugen, Scott v. Harris, and Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Court identified the factors and conditions for each application of force by an officer involving a person operating a motor vehicle. And in each case, the Court granted qualified immunity to each of the involved officers. In some of those cases (Scott and Plumhoff), the Court held that the application of force by the officers was objectively reasonable. The bottom line in their synopsis of these cases was that the “excessive force cases involving car chases reveal[ed] the hazy legal backdrop against which Mullenix acted.”

Basically, the Court recognized that in the Fourth Amendment context, it was difficult for an officer to determine the outcome of the appropriate legal doctrine when applied to the situation that confronted him at the time he applied force. Most significantly, the Court opined that they have never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous vehicle pursuit to violate the Fourth Amendment and to be the only basis to deny qualified immunity.

In the case of Leija, the Court reasoned that Mullenix confronted a person who was in the middle of a very dangerous pursuit that had lasted for more than 25 miles and involved dangerously high speeds. Leija was allegedly armed and stated that he was going to shoot police officers.

Additionally, the intoxicated Leija was driving in the direction of an officer who was possibly in the path of his speeding vehicle or could possibly be shot by Leija as he passed by. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Court found that there was no other case that had a similar fact pattern and could provide a definitive guide on the Fourth Amendment analysis for that application of force under those circumstances. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s determination that Mullenix was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Justice Sotomayor filed the lone dissent in this case, in which she reviewed the tactical options that Mullenix could have utilized instead of using his patrol rifle. She provided her keen insight regarding police tactics and guidance on handling matters in the street. Although it was the sole dissenting opinion, it’s important to note she may one day write a majority decision on this topic.

Before anyone “lights up" the next car during a high speed pursuit, consider these points:

1. A police agency policy may restrict the use of this type of force in these types of encounters (shooting at motor vehicles).

2. The Supreme Court is putting police officers on notice that this type of force application is beginning to happen on a more consistent basis. Accordingly, there is case law that is developing about these types of use of force – there is less “haze” around the constitutional right that is being defined versus the governmental interest in apprehending the suspect. What this means is qualified immunity might not be granted the next time an officer shoots at a car involved in a high-speed pursuit.

3. Let’s look at the efficacy of the overall tactic of shooting at engine blocks to disable vehicles. It works beautifully in Hollywood movies but due to ballistic limitations and a host of other factors, it will rarely work when employed in a street setting. Unless you are on a movie set, check with your agency’s qualified firearms instructors before utilizing this tactic.

Stay safe out there. 

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