Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote Monday that the court is developing a “disturbing trend” of siding with police officers accused of excessive force at the expense of their alleged victims, a notion disputed by two of her colleagues.
Sotomayor was arguing that the court should have accepted the case of Richardo Salazar-Limon, who was shot in the back by Houston police officer Chris Thompson in 2010. A federal district judge dismissed Salazar-Limon’s suit before trial, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld that decision.
What happened in the incident that left Salazar-Limon crippled is disputed, Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, and a decision on which man is telling the truth should be made by “a jury sitting as finder of fact, not a judge reviewing a paper record.”
What made Sotomayor’s dissent unusual was the criticism of the court’s past decisions.
Her colleagues’ failure to accept the case “continues a disturbing trend regarding the use of this court’s resources,” Sotomayor wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity in cases involving the use of force,” Sotomayor said. “But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.”
That drew a rebuttal from Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Sotomayor cited five cases, Alito wrote, but “in all but one of those cases there was no published dissent.” She “has not identified a single case in which we failed to grant a similar petition filed by an alleged victim of unconstitutional police conduct.”
As the issue of police shootings has taken on new prominence in the national debate, Sotomayor has been the justice most outspoken about whether police officers too often have received the legal benefit of the doubt.
In 2015, she was the lone dissenter to a ruling that a Texas state trooper who shot and killed a fleeing suspect in a high-speed chase could not be held civilly liable for the man’s death, even though the officer’s superior had told him not to shoot.
Sotomayor said her colleagues were “sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach.”
In the case at the court Monday, Sotomayor said it was unclear who was in the wrong. Thompson had stopped Salazar-Limon because he suspected the man was driving drunk. The two were involved in a struggle when the officer tried to handcuff the suspect. Salazar-Limon started walking back to his vehicle when Thompson drew his gun and told him to stop.
Salazar-Limon said Thompson then almost immediately shot him in the back. Thompson said Salazar-Limon had raised his hands toward his waistband, as if for a weapon, when the officer fired. No gun was found on Salazar-Limon.
In a footnote, Sotomayor noted media reports of an “increasing frequency of incidents in which unarmed men allegedly reach for empty waistbands when facing armed officers.”
Lower courts said Salazar-Limon had offered no “controverting evidence” to Thompson’s testimony that the suspect had reached for his waistband, which had made the officer’s use of force reasonable.
But Sotomayor said that the men offered differing accounts and that a jury should have decided which was believable.
“What is clear is that our legal system does not entrust the resolution of this dispute to a judge faced with competing affidavits. The evenhanded administration of justice does not permit such a shortcut,” she wrote.
Alito countered that there was nothing unusual about the case.
“Every year the courts of appeals decide hundreds of cases in which they must determine whether thin evidence provided by a plaintiff is just enough to survive a motion for summary judgment or not quite enough,” he wrote. “This is one such case.”
None of the other justices remarked upon the decision not to hear Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston.