Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took her fellow justices to task for endorsing a “shoot first, think later” approach to dealing with violence from criminals.
The Court dismissed a case involving the 2010 death of a fleeing suspect who threatened to shoot police if they approached him. And while the circumstances of this particular case do not place the police in a particularly favorable light, Sotomayor’s dissent in the matter shows she hasn’t a clue what cops face every day.
On Monday, the court dismissed a case involving the 2010 shooting death of Israel Leija, Jr. during a high speed police chase in Texas, reports NBC News.
During the chase — at speeds up to 110 miles per hour — Leija repeatedly called police on his cellphone and warned them that he had a gun and would shoot police officers if they failed to call off the pursuit.
After police set up tire spikes to slow down the car, State Trooper Chadrin Mullenix of the Texas Department of Public Safety decided to disable the car by shooting at it, but was told by his supervisor to stand by to see if the spikes worked first.
Mullenix disregarded his instructions and fired at the speeding car from an overpass, causing the driver to lose control and the vehicle to roll over before reaching the spikes. An autopsy revealed that four of the six shots Mullenix fired at the car had hit Leija instead, killing him.
According to an unsigned opinion from the court, the doctrine of police immunity in shootings protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” and that the use of deadly force during a dangerous car chase has never previously been held to be a constitutional violation.
In her dissent, Sotomayor stated that officers near the spike strips were not in danger, as Mullenix stated afterward, and that the courts’ decision to toss the case continues a bad precedent.
“By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow,” the Justice wrote.
She added that Mullenix “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.”
The officers at the spikes were not in danger? How was anyone supposed to know that the suspect had already been fatally wounded and wouldn’t pose a threat?
Sotomayor’s “think first, shoot later” approach to law enforcement would be a godsend to criminals and lead to a lot of widows burying their police husbands. In the above case, the officer who shot at the car before it reached the spikes was obviously in the wrong. But with the suspect threatening the lives of officers, it was justifiable — which is what the court ruled. In a kill-or-be-killed situation, getting the drop on the suspect separates a living cop from a dead cop.
This is not to say that before using his weapon, a policeman shouldn’t “think” first by identifying his target and sizing up the threat. But this is more instinctive behavior than rational decision making. Sotomayor wants to intellectualize the process. I don’t think there’s any doubt her way would result in a lot of dead cops.