Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday complained about a “disturbing trend” in which the U.S. Supreme Court appears more likely to intervene on behalf of police officers than the people they shoot.
Sotomayor lobbed her complaint in a dissent from a cert denial (PDF) in an excessive force case. The dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, included a footnote that read, “Some commentators have observed the increasing frequency of incidents in which unarmed men allegedly reach for empty waistbands when facing armed officers.”
Sotomayor argued that the court should have accepted a case that involved Ricardo Salazar-Limon, who was shot in the back by a Houston police officer as he walked back to his car. The officer said he shot Salazar-Limon in October 2010 because the suspect ignored his order to stop, turned toward the officer, and raised his hands toward his waistband. Salazar-Limon had said he was trying to walk away from a confrontation.
The shooting happened after Salazar-Limon was pulled over for suspected drunken driving and then resisted being handcuffed. Salazar-Limon sustained “crippling injuries” as a result of the shooting, according to Sotomayor.
Because there were competing accounts of the incident, the case should not have been decided by summary judgment, Sotomayor said.
The cert denial, Sotomayor wrote, “continues a disturbing trend regarding the use of this court’s resources. We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity in cases involving the use of force. … But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in the cert denial in an opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito said Salazar-Limon never refuted the officer’s claim that he had reached with his waist.
“It is clear,” Alito wrote, “that the lower courts acted responsibly and attempted faithfully to apply the correct legal rule to what is at best a marginal set of facts.”
Alito also said that Sotomayor had not cited any cases in which the Supreme Court failed to grant cert on behalf of an alleged victim of unconstitutional police conduct that was similar to the cases in which it granted relief for police officers.
“This is undeniably a tragic case,” Alito wrote, but the court rarely grants review when a petitioner alleges a lower court erred in applying a settled rule of law to particular facts.
The case is Salazar-Limon v. Houston. SCOTUSblog has coverage.