Justice Sotomayor Boils Down What's Twisted About The Law On Police Brutality

"We rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity."

WASHINGTON ― The Supreme Court doesn’t decide a lot of police shooting cases, but when it does, it tends to side with the officers. And increasingly it does so in unsigned rulings for which it doesn’t bother to hold oral arguments.

The justices again sided with the police Monday, but by choosing to not get involved. They declined to review a ruling from Texas favoring an officer who shot an unarmed man in the back after a vehicle stop. In the officer’s view, the shooting was justified because the driver had appeared to reach for a gun in his waistband.

Except it’s not at all clear that the victim, Ricardo Salazar-Limon, was even reaching for his waistband, let alone that the officer’s version of events is the final word of what happened in the case. A jury never got to weigh the conflicting versions.

Given this uncertainty, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a pointed dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court should have heard the case — if only to reaffirm the principle that juries, not judges, should be the ultimate arbiters of who’s being truthful when an officer is accused of violating a person’s civil rights.

“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 in her opinion, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Our legal system entrusts this decision to a jury sitting as finder of fact, not a judge reviewing a paper record.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has become one of the more vocal critics of how the law shields police abuses.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor has become one of the more vocal critics of how the law shields police abuses.
Brooks Kraft via Getty Images

In many ways, the facts of Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston are reminiscent of the countless incidents of police brutality that have grabbed headlines and hashtags since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Back in 2010, Salazar-Limon had been drinking and driving erratically on a Houston freeway when Chris Thompson, a Houston Police Department officer, stopped him at a roadside check. After finding no open warrants or pending charges, Thompson asked Salazar-Limon to step out of his truck, and the two stood next to each other near the back of the vehicle.

This is where the details of their encounter get a little hazy, and the two sides dispute what happened exactly. But one thing is clear: Salazar-Limon began to walk back to his truck, then Thompson shot him in the back. The victim testified that he was shot “immediately.” But Thompson said he shot Salazar-Limon only after he ordered him to stop walking and perceived that he was reaching for a firearm in his waistband.

Rather than acknowledge this conflicting testimony and let the case be decided by a jury, two lower courts determined that Thompson’s version of the shooting ruled the day and that he shouldn’t be held liable.

Perhaps drawing on her years as a trial judge, Sotomayor observed that “the evenhanded administration of justice does not permit such a shortcut.”

“We take one step back today.”

- Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“Our failure to correct the error made by the courts below leaves in place a judgment that accepts the word of one party over the word of another,” wrote Sotomayor, who has become one of the fiercest critics of how the law shields police abuse.

In a footnote, Sotomayor added that the “increasing frequency” of police officers shooting unarmed suspects going for “empty waistbands” makes it all the more imperative for jurors to be the ones deciding who’s more credible in these kinds of cases.

More tellingly, the justice then expressed dismay at a “disturbing trend” in how the Supreme Court has played a role in jumping to immunize police officers who are quick to pull the trigger, while doing little to step in whenever an officer has been wrongly shielded.

“But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases,” she wrote, as she listed case after case after case in which her colleagues instead gave officers a reprieve from liability. She called that feature an “asymmetry” that the court, at times, has tried to correct.

“We take one step back today,” Sotomayor wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a short response to Sotomayor, in which he stood up for the courts that ruled for Officer Thompson — and for the Supreme Court’s handling of similar cases.

“This is undeniably a tragic case, but as the dissent notes ... we have no way of determining what actually happened in Houston on the night when Salazar-Limon was shot,” Alito wrote. “All that the lower courts and this Court can do is to apply the governing rules in a neutral fashion.”

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