The Supreme Court’s decision Monday not to hear an excessive-force case drew a fiery dissent from two left-leaning justices, who say the lower courts should have let a jury decide instead of taking the word of a police officer over that of the man he shot.
Ricardo Salazar-Limon was shot in the back by a Houston police officer just after midnight on Oct. 29, 2010. He claims Officer Chris Thompson shot him as he tried to walk away from a confrontation with the officer on an overpass.
The dispute began when the officer pulled Salazar-Limon over after seeing him weaving between lanes and speeding. After checking and finding no warrants for his arrest, Thompson asked Salazar-Limon to step out of his truck.
The officer tried to handcuff Salazar-Limon but he resisted, according to court records, and a struggle ensued, after which Salazar-Limon pulled away and turned his back to Thompson.
Thompson pulled out his gun and ordered Salazar-Limon to stop. The officer testified that he saw the suspect turn and reach toward his waistband, which was covered by a shirt hanging below his waist.
Thinking Salazar-Limon was reaching for a weapon, Thompson fired once, hitting him in the right lower back.
Salazar-Limon survived but was left partially paralyzed. He did not have a weapon, and pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and driving while intoxicated.
He sued Thompson and the city of Houston in 2011, alleging constitutional and state-law violations. The trial court granted the officer qualified immunity and dismissed the claims against him, finding his use of deadly force was not excessive given the circumstances. It also ruled in favor of Houston. The Fifth Circuit affirmed last year.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Salazar-Limon’s petition for writ of certiorari:
Justice Samuel Alito was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas in a concurring opinion agreeing with the high court’s denial of certiorari.
“Regardless of whether the petitioner is an officer or an alleged victim of police misconduct, we rarely grant review where the thrust of the claim is that a lower court simply erred in applying a settled rule of law to the facts of a particular case… The case before us falls squarely in that category,” Alito wrote. “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. All that the lower courts and this Court can do is to apply the governing rules in a neutral fashion.”
However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented from the court’s denial of review in the case, saying a jury should have decided whether Thompson’s use of force against Salazar-Limon was excessive.
“This is not a case that should have been resolved on summary judgment,” Sotomayor wrote.
She added, “Given that this case turns in large part on what Salazar-Limon did just before he was shot, it should be obvious that the parties’ competing accounts of the event preclude the entry of summary judgment for Thompson… On the one, Salazar-Limon provoked the use of force by turning and raising his hands toward his waistband. On the other, Thompson shot without being provoked. It is not for a judge to resolve these ‘differing versions of the truth’ on summary judgment… that question is for a jury to decide at trial.”
Sotomayor and Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion rejects the majority’s argument that Salazar-Limon did not explicitly testify that he never reached for his waistband.
Sotomayor said it could be inferred that he neither turned nor reached for his waistband before he was shot, considering no gun was found.
“This is not a difficult case. When a police officer claims that the victim of the use of force took some act that would have justified that force, and the victim claims he did not, summary judgment is improper,” the dissent states. “The Fifth Circuit’s decision should be reversed.
Sotomayor added, “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. 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.”
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