The Ferguson Effect has shown up at the level of the Supreme Court in the person of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Thankfully her opinion failed to carry the day, but it’s still a warning regarding things to come.
The case in question was one which was actually thrown out by the Supreme Court today. It dates back half a decade to a high speed chase in Texas where the boys in blue were on the trail of fugitive Israel Leija, Jr. Leija was traveling at speeds up to 110 mph and threatening to shoot the cops if they didn’t back off. Some spike strips were set up at an overpass to try to stop him, but one officer – Trooper Chadrin Mullenix – went up on the overpass and attempted to disable the vehicle by firing six rounds at it. He wound up disabling Leija instead. Terminally so.
The suspect’s family sued, of course, after Mullenix claimed immunity as a federal official acting in the line of duty. Two lower courts agreed with the family, but on appeal to the Supreme Court the case was booted. (NBC News)
[T]oday, in an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the Texas trooper.
“Mullenix confronted a reportedly 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 the overpass, the court said.
The doctrine of police immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” it said, adding that its previous rulings have never said that the use of deadly force during a dangerous car chase is automatically a constitutional violation.
There wasn’t even a hearing at the court. Apparently enough of the justices agreed with the finding that they simply issued an unsigned, written summary siding with the officer. And why wouldn’t they? We’re not talking about some dodgy shooting here. Leija took time out of his very busy day to whip out his cell phone while doing one hundred miles an hour through civilian traffic and let the police know he was going to shoot them if they got near him. He was already a wanted man. His car alone was a deadly weapon at that point, not just to the officers but to any other drivers or pedestrians in the area. If there was ever a case of somebody needing their switch flipped off in a hurry (one way or the other) then this was it.
And yet there was a lone voice of dissent on the court in the person of wise Latina Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In the only noted dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday’s ruling endorses a “shoot first, think later” approach to policing.
The trooper, she said, “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.”
By deciding to enshrine the phrase “shoot first, think later” into the eternal records of the nation’s highest court, Sotomayor has elevated the Ferguson Effect to new heights. Even though her position was squashed by the rest of the court we are now on record as having a member of the Supreme Court ready to say that a law enforcement officer can and potentially should be thrown to the wolves if they use lethal force, even in the most obvious of circumstances. If Israel Leija, Jr. didn’t represent a clear and present threat to not only the officers on the scene but to the rest of the community, than nobody short of a 9/11 hijacker ever has.
When we have nobody left in this country willing to put on the badge, separate civilized society from anarchy and risk their lives in doing so, you’ll know why.