ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.
[136 S.Ct. 306] [193 L.Ed.2d 256] PER CURIAM.
On the night of March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Tulia, Texas Police Department followed Israel Leija, Jr., to a drive-in restaurant, with a warrant for his arrest. 773 F.3d 712, 715-716 (CA5 2014). When Baker approached Leija's car and informed him that he was under arrest, Leija sped off, headed for Interstate 27. 2013 WL 4017124, *1 (ND Tex., Aug. 7, 2013). Baker gave chase and was quickly joined by Trooper [193 L.Ed.2d 257] Gabriel Rodriguez of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). 773 F.3d at 716.
Leija entered the interstate and led the officers on an 18-minute chase at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour. Ibid. Twice during the chase, Leija called the Tulia Police dispatcher, claiming to have a gun and threatening to shoot at police officers if they did not abandon their pursuit. The dispatcher relayed Leija's threats, together with a report that Leija might be intoxicated, to all concerned officers.
As Baker and Rodriguez maintained their pursuit, other law enforcement officers set up tire spikes at three locations. Officer Troy Ducheneaux of the Canyon Police Department manned the spike strip at the first location Leija was expected to reach, beneath the overpass at Cemetery Road. Ducheneaux and the other officers had received training on the deployment of spike strips, including on how to take a defensive position so as to minimize the risk posed by the passing driver. Ibid.
DPS Trooper Chadrin Mullenix also responded. He drove to the Cemetery Road overpass, initially intending to set up a spike strip there. Upon learning of the other spike strip positions, however, Mullenix began to consider another tactic: shooting at Leija's car in order to disable it. 2013 WL 4017124, *1. Mullenix had not received training in this tactic and had not attempted it before, but he radioed the idea to Rodriguez. Rodriguez responded " 10-4," gave Mullenix his position, and said that Leija had slowed to 85 miles per hour. Mullenix then asked the DPS dispatcher to inform his supervisor, Sergeant [136 S.Ct. 307] Byrd, of his plan and ask if Byrd thought it was " worth doing." 773 F.3d at 716-717. Before receiving Byrd's response, Mullenix exited his vehicle and, armed with his service rifle, took a shooting position on the overpass, 20 feet above I-27. Respondents allege that from this position, Mullenix still could hear Byrd's response to " stand by" and " see if the spikes work first." Ibid. [*]
As Mullenix waited for Leija to arrive, he and another officer, Randall County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Shipman, discussed whether Mullenix's plan would work and how and where to shoot the vehicle to best carry it out. 2013 WL 4017124, *2. Shipman also informed Mullenix that another officer was located beneath the overpass. 773 F.3d at 717.
Approximately three minutes after Mullenix took up his shooting position, he spotted Leija's vehicle, with Rodriguez in pursuit. As Leija approached the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots. Leija's car continued forward beneath the overpass, where it engaged the spike strip, hit the median, and rolled two and a half times. It was later determined that Leija had been killed by Mullenix's shots, four of which struck his upper body. There was no evidence that any of Mullenix's shots hit the car's radiator, hood, or engine block. Id., at 716-717; [193 L.Ed.2d 258] 2013 WL 4017124, *2-*3.
Respondents sued Mullenix under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he had violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against Leija. Mullenix moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity, but the District Court denied his motion, finding that " [t]here are genuine issues of fact as to whether Trooper Mullenix acted recklessly, or acted as a reasonable, trained peace officer would have acted in the same or similar circumstances." 2013 WL 4017124, *6.
Mullenix appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 765 F.3d 531 (2014). The court agreed with the District Court that the " immediacy of the risk posed by Leija is a disputed fact that a reasonable jury could find either in the plaintiffs' favor or in the officer's favor, precluding us from concluding that Mullenix acted objectively reasonably as a matter of law." Id., at 538.
Judge King dissented. She described the " 'fact issue' referenced by the majority" as " simply a restatement of the objective reasonableness test that applies to Fourth Amendment excessive force claims," which, she noted, the Supreme Court has held " 'is a pure question of law.'" Id., at 544-545 (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 381, n. 8, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007)). Turning to that legal question, Judge King concluded that Mullenix's actions were objectively reasonable. When Mullenix fired, she emphasized, he knew not only that Leija had threatened to shoot the officers involved in his pursuit, but also that Leija was seconds away from encountering such an officer beneath the overpass. Judge King also dismissed the notion that Mullenix should have given the spike strips a chance to work. She explained that because spike strips are often ineffective, and because officers operating them are vulnerable to gunfire from passing cars, Mullenix reasonably feared that the officers manning them faced a significant risk of harm. 765 F.3d at 548-549.
[136 S.Ct. 308] Mullenix sought rehearing en banc before the Fifth Circuit, but the court denied his petition. Judge Jolly dissented, joined by six other members of the court. Judge King, who joined Judge Jolly's dissent, also filed a separate dissent of her own. 777 F.3d 221 (2014) ( per curiam ). On the same day, however, the two members forming the original panel's majority withdrew their previous opinion and substituted a new one. 773 F.3d 712. The revised opinion recognized that objective unreasonableness is a question of law that can be resolved on summary judgment--as Judge King had explained in her dissent--but reaffirmed the denial of qualified immunity. Id., at 715, 718. The majority concluded that Mullenix's actions were objectively unreasonable because several of the factors that had justified deadly force in previous cases were absent here: There were no innocent bystanders, Leija's driving was relatively controlled, Mullenix had not first given the spike strips a chance to work, and Mullenix's decision was not a split-second judgment. Id., at 720-724. The court went on to conclude that Mullenix was not entitled to qualified immunity because " the law was clearly established [193 L.Ed.2d 259] such that a reasonable officer would have known that the use of deadly force, absent a sufficiently substantial and immediate threat, violated the Fourth Amendment." Id., at 725.
We address only the qualified immunity question, not whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation in the first place, and now reverse.
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct " 'does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). A clearly established right is one that is " sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right." Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. ___, ___, 132 S.Ct. 2088, 182 L.Ed.2d 985, 989 (2012) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). " We do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Ashcroft v. al- Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011). Put simply, qualified immunity protects " all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986).
" We have repeatedly told courts . . . not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality." al- Kidd, supra, at 742, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149. The dispositive question is " whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established." Ibid. (emphasis added). This inquiry " 'must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.'" Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (2004) ( per curiam ) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001)). Such specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Court has recognized that " [i]t is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts." 533 U.S. at 205, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272.
In this case, the Fifth Circuit held that Mullenix violated the clearly established rule that a police officer may not " 'use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of [136 S.Ct. 309] harm to the officer or others.'" 773 F.3d at 725. Yet this Court has previously considered--and rejected--almost that exact formulation of the qualified immunity question in the Fourth Amendment context. In Brosseau, which also involved the shooting of a suspect fleeing by car, the Ninth Circuit denied qualified immunity on the ground that the officer had violated the clearly established rule, set forth in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985), that " deadly force is only permissible where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others." Haugen v. Brosseau, 339 F.3d 857, 873 (CA9 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). This Court summarily reversed, [193 L.Ed.2d 260] holding that use of Garner 's " general" test for excessive force was " mistaken." Brosseau, 543 U.S. at 199, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583. The correct inquiry, the Court explained, was whether it was clearly established that the Fourth Amendment prohibited the officer's conduct in the " 'situation [she] confronted': whether to shoot a disturbed felon, set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight." Id., at 199-200, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583. The Court considered three court of appeals cases discussed by the parties, noted that " this area is one in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case," and concluded that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because " [n]one of [the cases] squarely governs the case here." Id., at 201, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (emphasis added).
Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987), is also instructive on the required degree of specificity. There, the lower court had denied qualified immunity based on the clearly established " right to be free from warrantless searches of one's home unless the searching officers have probable cause and there are exigent circumstances." Id., at 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523. This Court faulted that formulation for failing to address the actual question at issue: whether " the circumstances with which Anderson was confronted . . . constitute[d] probable cause and exigent circumstances." Id., at 640-641, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523. Without answering that question, the Court explained, the conclusion that Anderson's search was objectively unreasonable did not " follow immediately" from--and thus was not clearly established ...