At approximately 10:21 p.m., a police officer followed Leija to a fast food restaurant and attempted to arrest him on an outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrant. After some discussion with the officer, Leija fled in his vehicle with the officer in pursuit. A state trooper took the lead in the pursuit as Leija continued onto an interstate highway. Twice during the pursuit, Leija called the 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, along with a report that Leija might be intoxicated, to the officers.
Approximately eighteen minutes into the pursuit, Leija approached an overpass where an officer had deployed a spike strip in the roadway. In addition, Trooper Mullenix positioned himself on top of the overpass with an M-4 rifle. Mullenix fired six rounds at Leija’s car, which then engaged the spike strip, hit the median and rolled over. Leija was pronounced dead at the scene. Leija’s cause of death was later determined to be one of the shots fired by Mullenix. Leija’s estate sued Mullenix, claiming Mullenix violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force to stop Leija.
Whether the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because his use of force was objectively reasonable.
Qualified immunity protects officers from civil liability as long as long as their conduct does not violate a clearly established right. In the context of excessive force cases involving vehicle pursuits, the Supreme Court noted that existing case law was not sufficiently clear to put Mullenix on notice that his actions violated Leija’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unlawful seizure. Instead, the Court stated it has never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, let alone the basis for denying an officer qualified immunity.
In Scott v. Harris, the Court held an officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment by ramming a fleeing suspect whose reckless driving “posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives” of other motorists and the officers involved in the chase. In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Court reaffirmed Scott by holding that an officer acted reasonably when he fatally shot a fugitive who was “intent on resuming” a chase that “posed a deadly threat for others on the road.”
In this case, while Leija did not pass as many cars as the drivers in Scott or Plumhoff during the pursuit, Leija verbally threatened to kill any officers in his path, and he was about to come upon an officer as he approached the overpass. As a result, the Court held that Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity.
577 U. S. ____, 136 S. Ct. 305 (2015)