Today, the Supreme Court declined to review an appeal in the case of Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston (scroll down). Of course, the Court declines most appeals and can only review a small fraction of the cases brought to it. What is noteworthy about this case is the dissent filed by Justice Sotomayor. She wanted to explain why the Court’s denial was a mistake.
The case involved a police shooting in Houston. The man, Ricardo Salazar-Limon (SL), survived the shooting and later sued for excessive force. Unfortunately, his lawsuit was thrown out before there was even a trial. That was Sotomayor’s objection–the case was improperly decided by a judge before trial when a jury should have heard the controversy. Salazar-Limon was shot by the police and now the government has tossed away his legal claim of excessive force. By allowing the lower court ruling to stand uncorrected, the law is now tilting against the victims of police misconduct and puts dangerous power in the hands of police.
Here’s the background: SL was driving on a Houston freeway around midnight. He had been drinking. Officer Chris Thompson pulled him over, and asked for his license. Thompson checked for warrants, but there were none. SL was asked to exit his vehicle –probably for a sobriety test. It seems that when Thompson moved to put handcuffs on SL, things escalated fast and their stories diverge. SL says he started walking away, and that he was shot in the back just seconds after Thompson had called out to him to stop. Thompson claims that SL responded to his order by turning around and making a motion toward his waistband as if he were about to draw a gun, so Thompson, who had already drawn his weapon, shot SL. SL had no gun.
As noted, an excessive force claim was filed. The police officer asked the district judge to resolve the case in his favor prior to trial, arguing that he was immune under the doctrine of qualified immunity.
When the facts are disputed, cases typically go to the jury. When there is no real factual dispute, a judge might decide the case based on the law. That’s what happened here, but it remains controversial. Officer Thompson and the lower courts took the position that since SL did not deny reaching for his waistband, the court could decide the case without a jury. In that situation, the courts said Thompson would have been justified in using deadly force–even if no gun is found later. The perceived threat is sufficient.
Sotomayor said the courts were making an awful mistake. SL’s legal claim did dispute the facts–that he did not turn to Officer Thompson till he was shot in the back. SL is basically saying that he got shot for disobeying an order given just seconds earlier and that’s excessive force.
Sotomayor isn’t saying that Officers Thompson was wrong to shoot. She is making a more modest argument. The jury should have heard both sides and then decided the case after hearing all the evidence. She believes the courts are deciding too many of these kinds of cases prematurely and that the victims of police misconduct are having their claims improperly rejected. She’s right. Alas, only Justice Ginsburg joined Sotomayor’s dissent. Still, the dissent raised the profile of the problem and will help ignite a debate in this important corner of the law.
We should note that Sotomayor cites this article by Radley Balko that collects cases of persons shot by police where the justification was “reaching for the waistband” and it turned out there was no gun. That is just too thin a basis for the use of deadly force on people. To be clear, the officer could draw his weapon and he could take cover and issue more commands to a suspect to show his hands. But opening fire without seeing a gun in such circumstances seems wrong. At the least, the jury should have decided whether the shot was truly justified.