By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Texas state trooper does not have to face a civil lawsuit for firing six rifle shots and killing a man fleeing police over a probation violation in a high-speed 2010 highway chase south of Amarillo.
The high court, over a dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, reversed a December 2014 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed family members of the slain man, Israel Leija, to sue Trooper Chadrin Mullenix.
The family's suit claimed that Leija's right to be free from excessive force under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment was violated. A U.S. district court judge ruled in Mullenix's favor in 2013 but the appeals court reversed that ruling.
Sotomayor called the high court's decision to shield Mullenix from the lawsuit too sympathetic to the trooper.
"By sanctioning a 'shoot first, think later' approach to policing, the court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow," Sotomayor wrote.
Mullenix fired at Leija's vehicle from an overpass about 22 miles (35 km) south of Amarillo on the morning of March 23, 2010, as Leija sped toward the trooper's location on Interstate 27. Leija had fled after a police officer from Tulia, Texas tried to arrest him for a probation violation.
Leija was unarmed but had told officers he had a gun and had threatened to fire on officers who sought to stop him. Other officers had already deployed spikes at the same location on the highway in a bid to halt Leija.
Mullenix separately decided to fire at the vehicle to try to stop it, saying he would aim at the engine. Four of the six shots hit Leija's upper body, killing him before the car crashed.
In the unsigned ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court noted that police officers are shielded from lawsuits unless they violate clearly established rights. No Supreme Court precedent has held that a police officer cannot use deadly force in a situation like the one Mullenix faced, the court said.
"The fact is that when Mullenix fired, he reasonably understood Leija to be a fugitive fleeing arrest, at speeds over 100 miles per hour (160 kph), who was armed and possibly intoxicated, who had threatened to kill any officer he saw if the police did not abandon their pursuit, and who was racing towards" the overpass, the court said.
The case is Mullenix v. Luna, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1143.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)