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The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. A clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right. A court does not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. Put simply, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.
On the night of March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker followed Israel Leija, Jr., to a drive-in restaurant, with a warrant for his arrest. When Baker approached Leija’s car and informed him that he was under arrest, Leija sped off. 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. DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix 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.” 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 2 1/2 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 under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, 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.” Mullenix appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Was a police officer entitled to qualified immunity from 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 civil-rights action alleging violation of Fourth Amendment by using excessive force in shooting and killing reportedly intoxicated fugitive who was fleeing in motor vehicle?
The court held that a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity for his conduct in shooting and killing a reportedly intoxicated fugitive who was fleeing in a vehicle at high speed, twice threatened to kill officers, and was racing toward another officer's location before the vehicle reached a spike strip placed on the road, since it was not beyond debate that the officer acted unreasonably in the unclear border between excessive and acceptable force.