NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Immunity is not available to a Texas state trooper who ended a high-speed chase by firing at the fleeing car from a bridge, killing the driver, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Trooper Chadrin Lee Mullenix fired six shots, allegedly to disable the fleeing car, but four of those bullets struck the driver, Israel Leija Jr., and none hit the car.
After firing the rounds, and watching the car hit a median and flip over, the trooper quipped to his supervisor, "How's that for proactive?"
Leija had fled on March 23, 2010, after officers spotted him on arrest warrants stemming from a misdemeanor probation violation. The 18-minute pursuit stretched through rural areas of Interstate-27 at speeds between 80 and 100 mph.
Dashcam video supports a claim by Leija's family that highway traffic was dry, and that the chase did not cause any collisions or endanger any pedestrians, according to the ruling.
Officers meanwhile relied on other information.
"During the pursuit, Leija twice called the Tulia Police Dispatch on his cell phone, claiming that he had a gun, and that he would shoot at police officers if they did not cease the pursuit," Judge James Graves Jr. wrote for a three-judge panel. "This information was relayed to all officers involved. It was discovered later that Leija had no weapon in his possession."
Despite a series of spike strips set up along the road, Mullenix claimed that he positioned his patrol car on a 20-foot bridge to wait for the pursuit.
"Mullenix planned to use his .223 caliber M-4 rifle to disable the vehicle by shooting at its engine block, although he had never attempted that before and had never seen it done before," Graves wrote.
Leija's car continued north after Mullenix fired. After it hit the spike strip and then the median, it rolled two and a half times.
"In the aftermath of the shooting, Mullenix remarked to his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, 'How's that for proactive?'" the decision states. "Mullenix had been in a counseling session earlier that same day, during which Byrd intimated that Mullenix was not being proactive enough as a trooper. Leija was pronounced dead soon after the shooting."
Leija's cause of death was a single shot to the neck - one of the four shots that struck Leija's upper body.
"No evidence indicates that Mullenix hit the vehicle's radiator, hood or engine block," Graves wrote.
A Texas Rangers investigation and a review board with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) concluded no wrongdoing on Mullenix's part. A grand jury declined to indict the officer in connection with the shooting.
In the lawsuit brought by Leija's family, only an excessive-force claim against Mullenix remains active.
"The District Court noted that '[t]here is no evidence - one way or another - that any attempt to shoot out an engine block moving at 80 mph could possibly have been successful,'" Graves wrote.
Though Mullenix may have been trained in shooting upwards at clay pigeons, "he had no training on how to shoot at a moving vehicle to disable it," the ruling states.
With evidence suggesting that the pursuit posed no immediate threat to justify the shooting, the 5th Circuit affirmed, 2-1, Thursday that Mullenix is not eligible for summary judgment.
Spike strips, which were already set up in three locations ahead of the pursuit, and other nonlethal methods could have ended the pursuit, the court found.
Judge Carolyn King wrote in dissent that the ruling conflicts with Supreme Court precedent.
"It is difficult to conceive of a threat that is more immediate than the one Leija
Posed," King wrote. "At the moment Mullenix fired, Leija was seconds away from crossing the path of one of the officers he had threatened to shoot and minutes away from passing several other officers."