The Supreme Court has reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a police shooting case where a police officer who fired six times at the car of a fleeing arrestee. The Court found that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity in a civil suit. The ruling comes as prosecutors filed charges against two Louisiana officers in the Fifth Circuit in the shooting death of a 6-year-old autistic boy. Thirty-two-year-old Derrick Stafford of Mansura and 23-year-old Norris Greenhouse Jr., of Marksville each is charged with second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. Bond has been set at $1 million for each officer. The father has not been told that his son was killed.
Some accounts say that the shooting occurred after a chase and that, after reaching a deadend, Stafford may have backed up toward the officers who opened fire. However, those accounts do not jive with the new report from a videotape that Stafford may have been surrendering at the time of the shooting (even assuming that he had engaged in the effort to flee).
This week it was revealed that body camera video showed the father, Chris Few, with his hands up in the air and not posing any threat to the officers when they opened fire — seriously wounding Few and killing Jeremy Mardis. The shooting occurred in Marksville, Louisiana where the two men were working secondary jobs as marshals. Notably, the case shows how small this community is. District Attorney Charles A. Riddle recused himself in light of the fact that one of his top assistant prosecutors is the father of Greenhouse.
The earlier Fifth Circuit case originated in Texas where Tulia, Texas, police officer Chadrin Lee Mullenix fired six times at a car of a fleeing arrestee, Israel Leija Jr. Leija had fled after a police officer approached his car at a drive-in restaurant to arrest him. Leija drove at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour during the chase and called the Tulia police dispatcher to day that he had a gun and would shoot at officers if they didn’t give up the chase. The police set up spike strips at three locations, including at Cemetery Road beneath an overpass. Mullenix drove to the Cemetery Road overpass and asked a dispatcher if his supervisor wanted him to shoot at the car. It is not clear if he heard his supervisor’s advice to wait to see if the spikes worked. Mullenix fired when the car a killing Leija. The Fifth Circuit ruled that Mullenix’s actions were objectively unreasonable and Mullenix was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court reversed and found that Mullenix had acted amid a “hazy legal backdrop” of excessive force cases involving car chases. The Court found that prior cases “have not clearly established that deadly force is inappropriate to conduct like Leija’s” and that “never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity.” Justice Sotomayor filed a dissent that noted that Mullenix “puts forth no plausible reason to choose shooting at Leija’s engine block over waiting for the results of the spike strips.”
The Texas case contained obviously distinguishing facts that the suspect had made threatening calls and was driving at a high rate of speed to evade police. The Louisiana case reportedly involved a man with his hands up at the time of the shooting. The Louisiana case is also now a criminal matter but will likely soon be also a civil case by this grieving family.