By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court, turning down a chance to test the limits of police use of force, declined on Monday to revive an unarmed suspect's lawsuit accusing a Houston officer of unconstitutional excessive force for shooting him in the back after he reached for his own waistband.
The justices, over a dissent by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, let stand a lower court's dismissal of a civil rights lawsuit brought by Ricardo Salazar-Limon, the drunken driving suspect who was left partially paralyzed after the 2010 traffic stop, against the officer who shot him, Chris Thompson.
The issue of police use of force has been in the spotlight in the United States following a series of shootings by officers of minorities in recent years as well as high-profile attacks on law enforcement officers.
Sotomayor, writing in a dissent joined by fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the court's refusal to take up the case continues a "disturbing trend" of shielding police officers from lawsuits and rarely intervening when they act wrongly.
Thompson testified he feared for his life when he saw Salazar-Limon reach toward his waistband, believing the suspect was going to pull out a weapon from under his untucked shirt, and fired a single shot, hitting the suspect in the right lower back.
Salazar-Limon sued Thompson and the city of Houston seeking damages for excessive use of force in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment. He is now a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair.
Sotomayor said the court should have intervened and reinstated the case, given that Salazar-Limon and Thompson contradict each other on what happened at the moment of the shooting.
"The question whether the officer used excessive force in shooting Salazar-Limon thus turns in large part on which man is telling the truth," Sotomayor wrote. "Our legal system entrusts this decision to a jury."
Thompson stopped Salazar-Limon around midnight on the elevated overpass of a freeway for speeding and suspected drunken driving. While attempting to handcuff the suspect, the officer said Salazar-Limon tried to push him into traffic. Salazar-Limon said he merely tried to walk away.
While walking back to his truck, Salazar-Limon moved his hand toward his waistband and began to turn around, the officer said, prompting him to shoot. Salazar-Limon pleaded no contest to charges of speeding and driving while intoxicated, and was fined.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2016 ruled that a trial judge properly dismissed the case because, given the perceived threat, Thompson was entitled to qualified immunity. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Salazar-Limon said he deserved a jury trial to decide whether Thompson was telling the truth.
In her dissent, Sotomayor noted that no gun was found on Salazar-Limon, and cited a 2014 decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the fact that a suspect is unarmed is evidence that could discredit a police officer in the eyes of a jury.
"The most natural inference to be drawn from Salazar-Limon's testimony was that he neither turned nor reached for his waistband before he was shot - especially as no gun was ever recovered," Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor noted that cases involving unarmed men allegedly reaching for empty waistbands are increasing, making it even more important that credibility disputes be decided by juries at trial.
In a separate opinion responding to Sotomayor, Justice Samuel Alito suggested that the case was handled both by the lower courts and the Supreme Court "in a neutral fashion."
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)